The Ethical Turn in French Postmodern Philosophy

Beverly R. Voloshin

Postmodern philosophers offer some form of deconstructive or destructive critique and have, like Nietzsche earlier, included ethics as the object of corrosive critique. At the same time, there has been a turn toward ethics in the work of several of the postmodern philosophers, and, as I will show, this turn has been made largely within the terms of postmodern theory. It is important to note that this turn predates the two famous debates of 1987-88—in France, over the relation of Heidegger’s philosophical work to his Nazi connections and, in the United States, over the relation of Paul de Man’s deconstructive literary criticism to his wartime writings for a collaborationist newspaper.(note 1) It is often claimed by American critics that the discovery of de Man’s early writings shocked literary critics and theorists into a recognition of the ethical problems of postmodern theory (Harpham 387-9).(note 2) This claim is accurate in a sense, but this version of intellectual and institutional history obscures certain lines of thought within postmodern theory, from roughly the early 1960s through the early 1980s.(note 3) It has been perhaps the very success of the skeptical energies of postmodern critique that has generated a counter-movement within postmodern philosophy to establish an ethics compatible with postmodern philosophy’s suspicion about positive or universal claims drawn from the standards of reason, nature, and law.

I want to draw attention to the ethical turn in the work of four of the best-known postmodern philosophers. My touchstones are Jean-François Lyotard’s The Differend, the three volumes of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Jacques Derrida’s first two essays on the work of Emmanuel Levinas, and Luce Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman. I do not mean to suggest that my examples represent the whole field; a notable counterinstance would be Gilles Deleuze’s poststructural critique of Enlightenment thought.

The nature of postmodern critique has been analyzed by Allan Megill in his excellent work of intellectual history, Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida. According to Megill, modernism and postmodernism in art and thought are tied to cultural crisis. Not the mid nineteenth-century crisis of the philosophical tradition and the theology connected to it, the collapse of the “God of the philosophers” and the “God of the Bible” precipitated by Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and by the Biblical criticism of David Friedrich Strauss and others, but by the late nineteenth-century crisis of historicism, that is, the collapse of the notion that history is linear or progressive. The dominant metaphor of the crisis in historicism is the metaphor of the break (Megill xii-xiii).(note 4) Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida are philosophers of crisis. Accompanying their critique, Megill argues, are complex forms of aestheticism, in which art or some extension of it constitutes “the primary realm of human experience” (Megill 2). For Heidegger, the extension of art is language; for Foucault, discourse; for Derrida, text. Aestheticism may promise liberation from a fractured history through art or may indicate the subject’s entrapment in a structure still more fundamental than history. Megill writes, “The irony that pervaded modernism tried to uncover a Man or Culture or Nature or History underlying the flux of surface experience. In postmodernism, this has given way to a new irony, one that holds these erstwhile realities to be textual fictions” (Megill 2).

Thus ethics, like the humanist conception of Man, would seem to be a cunning illusion at best, or at worst an insidious form of regulation. From all quarters, postmodern philosophers and the literary critics influenced by them have attacked both the humanist conception of the subject and ethics.(note 5) It is against the ground of the postmodern crisis and the debunking of ethics that the ethical turn must be made.

Among the French postmodern philosophers, the return to ethics has been made clearly by Lyotard in The Differend (1983), though Lyotard uses this term sparingly.(note 6) He distances his work from the humanist ideas associated with ethics by using a variety of philosophical terms, including terms from the philosophy of language. He must shift his terms and style of presentation because he hopes to refute “the prejudice anchored in the reader by centuries of humanism and of ‘human sciences’ that there is ‘man,’ that there is ‘language,’ that the former makes use of the latter for his own ends, and that if he does not succeed in attaining these ends, it is for want of good control over language ‘by means’ of a ‘better’ language” (xiii). Following the linguistic turn, Lyotard rejects the unified subject and the notion that language is his tool. This does not mean that the problems of injustice and suffering disappear. They remain. They accumulate with an unbearable weight in this century. What disappears for Lyotard are the old explanations, apologies, solutions.

In an earlier important book, The Postmodern Condition (1979), Lyotard offers a lucid exposition of postmodernism in terms of the breakdown of the master narratives of progress, of socialism, of knowledge. Here and in other work of the 1970s, Lyotard was already reflecting on the problem of justice in the postmodern condition. In The Differend, Lyotard enters the breach, where neither first principles nor ends are given, to try to find the rules for judgment or justice. He writes, “I would like to call a differend the case where the plaintiff is divested of the means to argue and becomes for that reason a victim. . . . A case of differend between two parties takes place when the ‘regulation’ of the conflict that opposes them is done in the idiom of one of the parties while the wrong suffered by the other is not signified in that idiom” (9). Lyotard continues, “What is at stake in a literature, in a philosophy, in a politics perhaps, is to bear witness to differends by finding idioms for them” (13). “To bear witness to the differend” is precisely one of the philosophical stakes of this book, as the author explains in his “Preface: Reading Dossier,” using in a reflexive move the language of language games and the rules of discourse which he will interrogate (xii-xiii). To bear witness to the differend means not only to do the difficult work of philosophical thinking but also, if we follow Lyotard’s metaphor, to put oneself in the dialogic or agonistic relationship.

Despite the clarity of Lyotard’s definitions of the differend, this is a difficult book. It is a discontinuous essay, presented in the form of blocks or fragments. Some fragments take up cases of the differend, and others, technical problems in the history of philosophy from Plato to Wittgenstein, and especially in the philosophy of language. The differend is an example of difference and discontinuity—between at least two forms of discourse. Its consequences, however, reach outside of discourse to what we can only call the real lives of people. Lyotard tries to stage the differend while retaining the discontinuity of postmodernity itself. Hence the parts of his work are fragmentary and heterogeneous (though related) rather than being the unfolding of a unified argument. What is the motivation for this attempt to reconceive ethics in a postmodern situation? Part of the answer can, I believe, be found at the end of a fragmentary introductory section labeled “Context,” which begins with Lyotard’s encapsulation of the postmodern condition: “The ‘linguistic turn’ of Western philosophy (Heidegger’s later works, the penetration of Anglo-American philosophies into European thought, the development of language technologies); and, correlatively the decline of universalist discourses (the metaphysical doctrines of modern times: narratives of progress, of socialism, of abundance, of knowledge).” But then the author adds, “The weariness with regard to ‘theory,’ and the miserable slackening that goes along with it (new this, new that, post-this, post-that, etc.). The time has come to philosophize” (xiii). Lyotard implies that the work of philosophy is not to “do theory” but to make thinking responsible.

We see a strikingly different ethical turn in the late work of Michel Foucault. In the year of his death, volumes II and III of Foucault’s History of Sexuality were published—The Use of Pleasure (1984) and The Care of the Self (1984). These concern sexuality in ancient Greece and Rome. The first volume, an introduction, bears a title echoing Nietzsche, The Will to Knowledge (1976); the reader of Foucault’s earlier books will not be surprised to find Foucault, like Nietzsche, working to dismantle certain received ideas. Not only does Foucault not find a basis for sexuality in human nature but he also eschews consideration of bodies; instead he treats sexuality as the history of discourse about sexuality. Because of this, Foucault rejects the repression hypothesis—that in modern society a natural sexuality has been repressed. Since sexuality is produced by discourse and since the discourse of sexuality has increased, sexuality cannot have been repressed. Rather, it has proliferated. Sexuality is a certain knowledge produced by a variety of inter-related modern institutions. Sexuality cannot be the expression of the subject, since it is part of a regulating and regulated discourse. Indeed, the subject is also produced by a complex set of discourses or forms of knowledge-power, the chief of which is, in the modern world, the discourse of sexuality itself. Foucault writes, “[T]he project of a science of the subject has gravitated, in ever narrowing circles, around the question of sex” (Introduction 70). While discourse is productive for Foucault, older notions of agency are short-circuited, and Foucault denies especially the agency of the subject.

Many readers of Foucault were therefore no doubt unprepared for the serious consideration which Foucault gives to the subject in the next two volumes, on sexuality in ancient Greece and Rome. First of all, this is not the kind of subject to which Foucault had previously been attracted—the subject dominated by and perhaps also transcending the modern institutions, such as the madman and the criminal, and the subject who resists the discoursive norms, such as the hermaphrodite.(note 7) Instead, Foucault deals with the master class of ancient Greece and Rome, free men, and within this group, those who engage in philosophical reflection. Second, this subject takes itself as the object of ethical self-reflection and has genuine agency in thought and in action. This appears to be a remarkable reversal in Foucault’s conception of the subject.

What has happened between volume I and the subsequent volumes? Foucault has given up his intention of working backward from his analysis of the modern discourse of sexuality and instead projects a genealogy of the desiring subject, beginning in antiquity with the slow formation of a hermeneutics of the self.

The crafting or mastery of the male self in antiquity includes consideration of one’s sexual conduct; sexuality itself is not really the central issue of this study. In the crafting of the self, there is the promise of freedom through discipline. Similarly, Foucault hopes to achieve some form of freedom—though its nature remains highly ambiguous—through the dangers and discipline of his philosophical reflection; as he writes, he was motivated by curiosity, “not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself” (Use of Pleasure 8). Foucault has made the unusual move of presenting himself, the modern philosopher, in the game or trial of truth. Thus there seems to be a double ethical function of Foucault’s genealogy. First, it recovers the ethical dimension of the mastery of the self (of the relation of the self to the self) for the free male subject in the ancient world. Second, the work is an essay or trial or game of truth for the philosopher. The effort to think differently is for Foucault similar to the ancient askésis, an exercise or discipline “of oneself in the activity of thought” (Use of Pleasure 9).

In analyzing the ethical dimension in Foucault’s late work, it is also useful to recall the role which Allan Megill attributes to aestheticism in the development of postmodernism. (Megill’s study was completed before the publication of volumes II and III of Foucault’s History.) When the ethical stunningly returns in Foucault’s thinking, it returns, I would argue, in large measure as the aesthetic. In his introduction to volume II, Foucault writes that he became interested in “those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria” (Use of Pleasure 10-11). Foucault’s interest in his last two books is not only the “etho-poetic” dimension of ancient philosophical reflection, to use Foucault’s term (Use of Pleasure 13). Most of the work is structural analysis conducted on the basis of the ancient texts; the brilliance and formal completeness of such analysis are characteristic of Foucault’s major works, and we might say that these qualities themselves carry certain aesthetic values and meet certain stylistic criteria, and thus again Foucault’s work doubles the etho-poetic function of the ancient askésis.(note 8)

Despite the nearly antithetical character of their objects—Lyotard considers cases in which persons cannot express their grievances while Foucault considers the reflection and conduct of the free subject—there are some similarities in the projects of Lyotard and Foucault which are significant for an inquiry into the re-emergence of ethics. First, since neither can find grounds for obligation or action in general, both deal with particulars. In the late work of Foucault, certain concrete practices and technologies of the self and of relations to others emerge as the sites of etho-poetic possibility, while in The Differend, Lyotard attempts to bear witness to the differend and to search for grounds for judgment or justice by examining and juxtaposing particular cases. Second, for both Foucault and Lyotard, philosophy is not only discourse but also inquisition or agon. Foucault’s work gestures toward the rigor of the ancient practices and toward the difficulty and dangers of the trial or contest of truth for the modern philosopher. Lyotard’s presentation contains various images of the trial or contest of truth—juridical contest, the confrontation of discourses, language games; indeed, to bear witness is, in one sense, to be on trial. And Lyotard’s work also conveys the difficulty of thinking differently. Third, both Foucault and Lyotard suggest an aestheticizing of ethics, Foucault in projecting an etho-poetic dimension of philosophical reflection and Lyotard in aligning philosophy and literature as forms for staging the differend. Finally, in retaining the conditions of postmodernity while renewing the possibility of choice, judgment, and responsibility, both Foucault’s volumes on the ancient world and Lyotard’s The Differend build in a reflexive or recursive function typical of postmodern writing. In Foucault’s volumes the ancient askésis is shadowed by the work or ordeal of the modern philosopher, while Lyotard doubles the particular differends of political history and the history of philosophy in the differend, interrogating the rules of judgment and the rules of discourse with the rules of judgment and the rules of discourse. As Lyotard claims, though there are many forms of discourse, there is no “‘better’ language” of truth. One effect of such doubling is to keep the issues open, and this may be one of the limitations, or exasperations, of the ethical turn in postmodern philosophy. On the other hand, since Foucault and Lyotard reject methods of philosophizing which begin from universal and positive claims, perhaps an approach to ethics is possible only through complex forms of reflection and doubling. This surmise gains plausibility when we note, as I shall argue below, that both Derrida’s and Irigaray’s early approach to ethics involves forms of deconstructive doubling.

Derrida’s early essay, “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas” (1964), is devoted to the philosopher who reorients phenomenology towards the other and towards the possibility of ethics.(note 9) Levinas is a post-phenomenologist and a Talmudic commentator. The essay offers an exposition of Levinas’s work in phenomenology and a deconstructive critique, but the essay is also very much an appreciation of Levinas, and in this it differs in tone and perhaps also in aim from some of Derrida’s other important deconstructive readings of contemporary thinkers such as Lévi-Strauss and Lacan.

To summarize Derrida’s summary, Levinas sees Husserl and Heidegger as returning to the Greek origins of philosophy, to “the Greek domination of the Same and the One (other names for the light of Being and of the phenomenon)” (83). Levinas liberates us from this by recourse to experience itself, with the departure towards the other. It is the alterity of the other that opens history. This opening cannot be enclosed in any totality and resists every philosopheme. Derrida seconds Levinas’s indictment of ontology and phenomenology as “philosophies of violence” and “the totalitarianism of the same,” which are, further, complicitous with “technico-political possession” (91). Levinas famously characterizes the opening of history, the movement towards the other as the face to face. It is an encounter outside of categories, made possible by the other. Derrida writes, “Face to face with the other within a glance and a speech which both maintain distance and interrupt all totalities, this being-together as separation precedes or exceeds society, collectivity, and community . . . It opens ethics” (95-96). This face to face relation is an asymmetrical doubling which is not resolvable into a synthesis. Levinas’s approach to ethics, which begins with a gesture disrupting totalities, is a forerunner of Derrida’s approach to metaphysics.

As is to be expected, Derrida pulls the term ethics a little away from its traditional use—the philosophical study of the good, or of moral obligation, or of right conduct. Instead, he speaks of the opening of ethics, “the movement of ethics,” “the ethical relation,” and sees Levinas as offering not a theory of ethics but an “Ethics of Ethics” (96, 97, 111). As we have indicated, ethics or the possibility of ethics in a postmodern context emerges apart from positive and universalizing concepts. Derrida sees Levinas as renewing the possibility of ethics precisely by maintaining a distance from the universal and by rejecting the traditional metaphysics of presence. Derrida writes that the ethical relation for Levinas is a supplication and “[a]n immediate respect for the other himself—one might say, although without following any literal indication by Levinas—because it does not pass through the neutral element of the universal . . .” (96) Reversing the typical mise-en-abîme of deconstruction, Derrida even approves Levinas’s notion of the ethical relation as transcendence. There is thus a reconstructive effect of Levinas’s critique of ontology. Indeed, Derrida makes a stronger philosophical claim: Derrida calls the face to face or ethical relation the “restitution of metaphysics” which “then permits the radicalization and systemization of [Levinas’s] previous reductions of phenomenology and ontology” (96). Derrida goes on to put Levinas’s formulations into question. Some readers find this a critique of Levinas, while others understand the essay as a classic Derridean double reading which suspends alternatives. Still, neither way of reading cancels Derrida’s admiration of Levinas’s critical and reconstructive project.

How does Levinas’s philosophical project bear on Derrida’s in general and in particular as concerns the possibility of ethics? On the one hand, we note that some of Derrida’s own interests, terms, and methods find parallels in Levinas’s work; indeed, Levinas’s example seems to have been an aid to Derrida. The case can be made that Levinas’s critiques of Husserl and Heidegger prepare the ground for Derrida’s early double readings of Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger. Perhaps more interestingly, Derrida’s deconstructive method, or double reading, resembles Derrida’s own suggestive characterization of certain moments in Levinas’s writing: “It could doubtless be shown that it is in the nature of Levinas’s writing, at its decisive moments, to move along these cracks [in philosophical discourse], masterfully progressing by negations, and by negation against negation. Its proper route is not that of an ‘either this . . . or that,’ but of a ‘neither this . . . nor that'” (90). Also, like Levinas, Derrida interrogates totalizing philosophical discourses, which Derrida, too, often traces back to the Greeks. Derrida uses the term trace in a distinctive manner similar to Levinas’s—to indicate a relation outside of the metaphysics of presence and other than the Cartesian subject-object relation. Finally, in “Violence and Metaphysics,” Derrida asks a series of questions about Levinas’s critique of phenomenology—about “the necessity of lodging oneself within traditional conceptuality in order to destroy it” (111)—which Derrida is acutely aware can be posed about his own deconstructive writing practice as well.

On the other hand, Derrida does not aim at the restitution of metaphysics, and outside of his essays on Levinas seldom addresses directly the possibility of ethics. And while Levinas often writes in an earnest and even Hebraic tone, Derrida is generally an ironist. If we take Derrida’s work up to about 1980, the date of Derrida’s second essay on Levinas (“At this very moment in this work here I am”), it could doubtless be shown that Derrida is occupied with the problems of lodging oneself in traditional conceptuality in order to destroy it, that he looks for ways not to be enveloped in the conceptuality he seeks to destroy, and that the work of philosophical renewal, restitution, or reconstruction is in the shadow of Derrida’s deconstructive and ironic reading practices. In part, Derrida’s reading and writing strategies are means to avoid being enveloped in the conceptuality under question—the double reading which suspends alternatives; the highly allusive, metaphoric, and polyvalent quality of the prose; the use of literary forms and devices to ironize philosophical discourse (such as the form of the epistolary novel and the device of the Joycean pun in The Post Card); the remarkable rhetorical ingenuity of a number of the essays, such as “Plato’s Pharmacy” and “Le Facteur de la vérité,” which are constructed to allow the writer to escape the charges leveled against Plato and Lacan.

Where the work of philosophical reconstruction emerges from Derrida’s philosophical deconstruction is primarily on the subject of woman. For example, in “Le Facteur de la vérité” (1975), there is an ethical dimension to the critique of Lacan’s phallogocentrism—to free the concept or category of woman from the rule of the phallus and to open the possibility of difference from castration. One of the tasks of Derrida’s second essay on Levinas is to “interrogate the link, in E. L.’s Work, between sexual difference—the Other as the other sex, otherwise said as otherwise sexed—and the Other as wholly other, beyond or before sexual difference” (40). Derrida asks of Levinas’s commentary why that which precedes sexual difference is already marked as masculine. Does Levinas’s work become “the mastery of sexual difference posed as the origin of femininity? Hence mastery of femininity?” (42) Derrida implies that Levinas, who at times regards the feminine as an ontological category, nonetheless regulates it in a masculine discourse. Derrida also interrogates Levinas in a number of indirect ways and with certain rhetorical moves which work to recover she, elle. For example, Derrida uses the initials E. L. to address and refer to Levinas—thus invoking both a name of God (Hebrew, el—already part of the name Emmanuel) and the muted she—elle—of Levinas’s discourse. Derrida concludes not by closing a case against Levinas but by adding his fault to Levinas’s and, in a prose poem, mixing their voices with that of the muted elle. Since woman as a metaphysical or ontological category is nonetheless connected with real persons, there is an ethical dimension to Derrida’s questioning of the role of sexual difference in Levinas’s work. Might we say, following the lead of Levinas, that this dimension is ethical also because it is affective, appealing to something in addition to, or before, or beyond the totality of reason. This ethical dimension is also aesthetic, since it is achieved not only through a doubling deconstructive reading but through uses of language which can only be called rhetorical and poetic. Derrida’s formal experiment in this essay has, to borrow Foucault’s term, an etho-poetic dimension.

Of course, this ethical gesture—to question the deployment of sexual difference in the work of the philosophers, to think through sexual difference, and to reimagine the philosophical category of woman—is not unique to Derrida. It is at the center of the work of Irigaray and several other postmodern women philosophers writing in the wake of the upheavals of 1968.(note 10) The great work of feminist philosophy devoted to interrogating the deployment of sexual difference in the writing of the philosophers is Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman (1974). Perhaps the most revealing part of this text for our purposes is the brief essay in approximately its middle, “The Eternal Irony of the Community” (214-26), which is devoted to Hegel’s reading of the Antigone of Sophocles in The Phenomenology of Spirit and other writings. In “The True Spirit. The Ethical Order,” a key section of The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel works out the dialectic of the ethical law through his reading of Antigone. One might say that he treats Antigone as an allegory of the development of Spirit as ethics. Indeed, however brief Hegel’s references to the figure of Antigone and to the play, Irigaray indirectly shows that Hegel’s reading of the figure of Antigone structures the whole discussion of ethics in The Phenomenology(note 11) and that Hegel’s ethics is underwritten by and also compromised by the uncritical notion of sexual difference embodied in his Antigone.

Irigaray has been compared to Heidegger. Where Heidegger attempted to reintroduce the question of Being—the relation of Being to beings, the relation of Being to Time—which metaphysics has suppressed since the Greeks, Irigaray attempts to think sexual difference, similarly repressed. Not that sexual difference has been absent from the writing of the philosophers. As Irigaray amply demonstrates in Speculum, notions of sexual difference have undergirded their work. But sexual difference has not been thought. It has been a “blind spot” of philosophy, to use one of Irigaray’s terms. The task of Speculum is to reveal these blind spots and to trace how sexual difference has been put to work, always to the detriment of women. It is a deconstructive work which has reconstructive implications. Later texts of Irigaray’s such as This Sex Which Is Not One (1977) and An Ethics of Sexual Difference (1984) might be regarded as attempting to think sexual difference anew.

Irigaray’s method in the individual chapters of Speculum includes mimicking a philosopher’s work, summarizing with interspersed questions the argument of the work, juxtaposing texts which do not have an obvious connection, and adding her own commentary to what appears to be a review of the master’s work. These devices are used to double and to ironize the works in question and to throw light on the more or less hidden operations of sexual difference in them. Even Irigaray’s way of beginning is often quite indirect, not announcing which texts are under discussion. Irigaray uses all of these devices of indirection in “The Eternal Irony of the Community.” Such indirection has traditionally been called feminine—by Hegel, for example—and Hegel explicitly calls the irony of women— “the eternal irony of the community”—subversive (Hegel 288, par. 475). Irigaray thus occupies the dangerous position of common women who mock male wisdom and concern for universality—dangerous to the state and dangerous to women as well, since, according to Hegel, the state must repress this outcropping of individuality (which it helps to create by its very repression). Through the implicit argument of the essay and its stern tone, Irigaray also occupies the position of the exceptional woman, Antigone, who enters the political sphere to challenge Creon, the defender of the state. In this veiled manner, Irigaray challenges Hegel, the defender not only of the state but also of reason or Spirit and the dialectical wizard who explains the operation of ethics. According to Hegel, common women pursue particularity and use mockery to defend their pleasure, including their sexual pleasure; on the other hand, Antigone challenges Creon on a matter of intuited principle or divine law, to fulfill her obligation to bury her slain brother, thus annulling her chance for pleasure. Irigaray is on the side of both principle and pleasure, universality and individuality, by raising the question of why Hegel cannot grant self-consciousness to Antigone, instead entombing her in her unfulfilled womanhood, as Creon entombs her in the womb of the earth.

In Hegel’s narrative of the development of Spirit, Spirit realizes itself in the ethical substance, which is divided into two laws—the human law and the divine law. The two, though distinct, are dialectically related, for the fulfillment of each depends on the other. Human law is represented in the state and the citizen (the free male subject) and is aligned with self-consciousness and universality, while the divine law is embodied in the family and women and is aligned with unconsciousness, the earth, the body and blood, and the gods of the underworld. Women and the family are in an uneasy balance with the state since women may place the welfare of the family or the pleasure of the individual before the interests of the state, but women are also devoted to the cult of the dead. The funerary rites performed by women rescue the dead man from particularity, from unconsciousness, from the ravages of nature, giving him over to universality even more truly than in life—memorializing him as citizen of the state and as ancestor of the family, redeeming the accidents of life through the idealizing work of death. In the long opening paragraph of Irigaray’s essay, Irigaray gathers the scattered implications of Hegel’s chapter into an eloquent but already critical statement of the work of death in Hegel’s dialectic.

To Hegel, Antigone is the most perfect tragedy and Antigone the greatest tragic protagonist. Antigone acts on the basis of the divine law which requires burial of the dead, and she emphasizes the uniqueness of her obligation to her dead brother. Creon represents the human law and the state, but through his neglect of the divine law, he endangers the state which he thinks he is defending. Hegel sees Antigone as performing an ethical action by trying to bury her brother Polynices but not as acting ethically: as a woman, she does not attain the self-consciousness which is the requisite of ethical universality. Hegel’s gendering of the ethical law is so rigid that he cannot grant consciousness to Antigone, even though the movement of the dialectic might suggest that the opposition of the two laws would result in the sublation to self-consciousness.(note 12) Why is this? Part of Irigaray’s implied answer is that in Hegel’s dialectic the sublation is only for masculine ideality. Antigone’s work must be bent toward the work of death, must be for the brother; the sister is not equal to the brother, though Hegel will say she is. If in death consciousness cannot be returned to the warrior as self-consciousness, it can be recouped for Spirit: woman gathers the scattered drops of blood of the men lost in war— “a formal and empty universality,” in Irigaray’s paraphrase, for the bloodless gaze of the philosopher (226).

If masculine ideality is the telos of the dialectic, Irigaray also suggests that it is the base of the dialectic. Her two epigraphs for the chapter are taken from an apparently unrelated text, Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature. The first of these passages indicates that sexual difference is rooted in nature, that it cannot be transcended, and that it is the beginning of the dialectic. Here Hegel characterizes the male genitalia as having a telos, moving from the interior to the exterior of the body and emerging into “independent and active cerebrality,” while the female genitalia do not undergo opposition and remain undifferentiated. “On account of this difference therefore, the male is the active principle; . . . the female remains in her undeveloped unity . . .” (Speculum 214, quoting The Philosophy of Nature) Hegel can never see in Antigone independent and active cerebrality; what Hegel describes as her ethical consciousness, though guilty and more guilty than that of any man because it knows the law it violates (Hegel 284, par. 470), must still be regarded as unconsciousness. Hegel tries to hide Antigone away in her own undeveloped unity, as Creon hides her and his crime against her in the womb of earth. Yet of course the play Antigone remains to trouble us with the problem of woman, as does Irigaray’s ironic questioning of the origin and telos of Hegel’s dialectic. Antigone resists the totalizing work of the philosopher; in this poetic essay with its deconstructive doubling of Hegel’s essay, Irigaray challenges Hegel’s ethical system and evokes something else. In subsequent works, too complex to summarize here, Irigaray explicitly construes sexual difference as an ethical subject.

Again, similarities among these texts of Derrida, Irigaray, Lyotard, and Foucault are instructive in considering the motives for and the shape of postmodern ethical reflection. As we have seen, both Derrida and Irigaray are skeptical about universal claims and approach ethics indirectly, through strategies of doubling. Derrida’s and Irigaray’s ethical reflection begins as deconstructive critique, and both project a reconstruction or reimagining of sexual difference and of the category of woman. In certain essays, both also project themselves in a dialogue or conflict about woman, and thus like Foucault and Lyotard, they represent the philosopher in the game or trial of truth. In “Le Facteur de la vérité,” Derrida redoubles the conflict of Poe’s “Purloined Letter” as interpreted by Lacan, squaring off against Lacan’s claim to the letter of phallogocentrism, and in “At this very moment in this work here I am,” Derrida stages a dialogue between the voices of Levinas, himself, and the lost woman-child. As we have seen, in her essay on Hegel’s Antigone, Irigaray doubles the roles of common women and the exceptional woman, Antigone, to challenge Hegel’s conception of sexual difference and his totalizing dialectic. These works are also examples of Lyotard’s differend: what is at stake in these works is to bear witness to differends by finding idioms for them. And both Derrida and Irigaray use the resources of literature to write philosophy, so that as with Foucault and perhaps Lyotard ethics re-emerges under the aegis of aestheticism.

I have argued that ethics has re-emerged in distinctively postmodern contexts and that the ethical turn is therefore not a break in intellectual history, and I have tried to suggest that ethical reflection has attained a certain integrity in the work of several of the major postmodern philosophers. Perhaps we are still too close to the ethical turn in postmodern philosophy to gauge its relation to the history of ethics and to the history of postmodernism, but I hope that the connections I have sketched—in subject, method, and style—among the works of Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida, and Irigaray will help us to frame the relevant questions.


  1. The Heidegger affair was occasioned by the publication of Victor Farías’s brief against Heidegger, Heidegger et le nazisme, and the de Man affair, by the discovery of de Man’s wartime writings for a collaborationist newspaper in Belgium. Among the reconsiderations of Heidegger’s philosophy, see especially Derrida’s De l’Espirit, Lacoue-Labarthe’s La Fiction du politique, and, responding to both of these works, Lyotard’s Heidegger et “les juifs”. Back
  2. This is not to say that reflection on the Nazi era is irrelevant to postmodern writing. Indeed, it is probably more relevant than the Heidegger and de Man affairs would indicate. Certainly the writings of Levinas are deeply colored by his experiences of the war years and by his meditation on the Nazi persecution. Before the Heidegger and de Man affairs, Allan Megill argued that despite the sparseness of direct reference to the Holocaust, Derrida writes in its shadow (299-320). One of the key points of reference of Lyotard’s The Differend, if not the key point, is the Nazi extermination of the Jews. (And it should also be noted that Heidegger’s nazism has been the subject of research and debate since 1946-47.) Back
  3. Harpham modifies his initial account of “the Theoretical Era (ca. 1968-87),” arguing that after 1987, North American readers began to realize that “a persistent strain of ethical concern had for some time troubled the margins of critical discourse,” though his discussion implies that ethics was treated by postmodern theorists in a manner which was at best confused or self-contradictory (387, 392-4). Back
  4. In reply to Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, Derrida has again remarked the apocalyptic note and the metaphor of the break in Parisian intellectual life of the 1950s—the end of history, the end of philosophy, the end of man. He writes, “We had this bread of apocalypse in our mouths naturally, already . . .” (Specters of Marx, 14-15) Back
  5. Harpham nicely summarizes the postmodern attack on ethics (387-9). Back
  6. I list in parentheses the original date of publication in French for each of the major works discussed. Back
  7. The focus of most of Foucault’s works before his last years is less the subject per se than the history of systems of thought, and some of his works, such as The Order of Things, do not deal with the subject. Back
  8. See Paul Veyne’s “The Final Foucault and His Ethics” for a brief but rigorous discussion of Foucault’s Nietzschean rejection of “truth” and his valuation of style in philosophical thought; in his biography of Foucault, James Miller discusses Foucault’s notion of philosophy as an ordeal or trial and also tracks the shift in Foucault’s conception of the subject. Back
  9. I omit Levinas from the group of postmodern philosophers only because his work so seldom figures in studies of postmodern philosophy, though this exclusion is itself odd. In his recent TLS review on Levinas, Simon Critchley notes,

    French interest in Levinas is comparatively recent. In Vincent Descombes’s otherwise excellent history of French philosophy from 1933 to 1978, Modern French Philosophy, Levinas is not even mentioned, and the first philosophical reception of Levinas’s work took place in Belgium and the Netherlands, often in Catholic universities. Although a significant interest in Levinas had developed in France from the early 1980s, much of his contemporary dominant influence seems to have been the more or less direct consequence of the perceived ethical weakness and political myopia of Heidegger’s thinking, and is part of the considerable intellectual fallout from the ‘Heidegger Affair’ . . . (14)

    Despite the long engagement of postmodern philosophers such as Derrida, Irigaray, and Lyotard with the work of Levinas, in this most recent ethical turn, Levinas has frequently been appropriated in the name of certain neo-humanisms.

    Levinas emerged fairly recently on the postmodern stage for English and American readers; see especially Re-Reading Levinas, The Provocation of Levinas, Face to Face with Levinas, and The Levinas Reader. I am most grateful to Paul Delavati for introducing me to these books.

  10. In Ethics of Eros, Tina Chanter discusses with admirable clarity the inter-relations of the thought of Levinas, Derrida, and Irigaray, including the influence of Derrida and Levinas on Irigaray; I think Chanter may understate the possible influence of Irigaray on Derrida. Back
  11. Chanter makes the same point about Derrida’s commentary in Glas (141-92) on Hegel’s reading of Antigone (Chanter 286 n. 15). Glas and Speculum were published in the same year. Back
  12. Comparison with Hegel’s dialectic of master and slave is instructive. Each man would appropriate being-for-self to himself, but there is no being-for-self without recognition. The soon-to-be lord and bondsman enter the dialectical relation as two individuals set against each other in the struggle for recognition. While this dialectic is part of Hegel’s account of the development of Spirit, it is also an account of the development of self-consciousness in the lord and in the bondsman. The bondsman is he who first and subsequently recognizes negativity. He recognizes the negativity of death, which is the outcome of the struggle if pursued to its end, and he dreads death, which he can see is the ultimate lord; subsequently, he recognizes the negativity of the material on which he must work. These recognitions are sublated as self-consciousness and allow the bondsman to overcome alienation. Paradoxically, the bondsman’s self-consciousness is more developed than his lord’s; paradoxically, the lord depends on his bondsman more than the bondsman depends on the lord. Antigone and Creon also come together in nearly symmetrical opposition. Antigone recognizes the negativity of death as the outcome of this struggle, and she dreads it, as does the bondsman. As with the bondsman, Antigone’s recognition seems to be more complex than that of her victorious opponent. Hegel in fact indicates that Antigone attains a kind of self-consciousness unavailable to Creon: “But the ethical consciousness is more complete, its guilt more inexcusable, if it knows beforehand the law and the power which it opposes, if it takes them to be violence and wrong, to be ethical merely by accident, and, like Antigone, knowingly commits the crime” (Hegel 284, par. 470). Still, Hegel can see in Antigone only the ethical stage of the development of Spirit and not the dialectical development of self-consciousness. At nodes of conflict in the ethical dialectic, Hegel turns to the power of the state. When women are dangerous to the state, the state’s recourse is war, which takes away from women the object of their desire, young men, and which shows every man his masters—the state and death.

Works Cited

Bernasconi, Robert and Simon Critchley, eds. Re-Reading Levinas. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Bernasconi, Robert and David Wood, eds. The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other. New York: Random House, 1988.

Chanter, Tina. Ethics of Eros: Irigaray’s Rewriting of the Philosophers. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Cohen, Richard A., ed. Face to Face with Levinas. Albany: State U of New York P, 1986.

Critchley, Simon. “Taking an Ethical Turn.” Times Literary Supplement. October 17, 1997: 14-15.

Derrida, Jacques. “At this very moment in this work here I am.” Bernasconi and Critchley 11-48. “En ce moment même dans cet ouvrage me voici.” Textes pour Emmanuel Levinas. Ed. Francoise Laruelle. Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1980.

________. De l’Esprit: Heidegger et la question. Paris: Editions Galilee, 1987.

________. “Le Facteur de la vérité.” The Post Card 411-96. Poétique 21 (1975).

________. Glas. Trans. John P. Leavey, Jr. and Richard Rand. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1968. Glas. Paris: Editions Galilée, 1974.

________. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981. 61-171. La Dissémination. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1972.

________. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987. La Carte postale: de Socrate à Freud et au-delà. Paris: Aubier-Flammarion, 1980.

________. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1994. Spectres de Marx. Paris: Editions Galilée, 1993.

________. “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas.” Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978. 79-153. “Violence et métaphysique: essai sur la pensée d’Emmanuel Levinas.” Revue de métaphysique et de morale (1964, nos. 3 and 4).

Farías, Victor. Heidegger et le nazisme. Trans. Myriam Benarroch and Jean-Baptiste Grasset. Paris: Verdier, 1987.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley New York: Random House, 1978. Histoire de sexualité. V. I: La Volonté de savoir. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1976.

________. The History of Sexuality. Vol. II: The Use of Pleasure. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random House, 1985. Histoire de sexualité. V. II: L’Usage des plaisirs. Paris; Editions Gallimard, 1984.

________. The History of Sexuality. Vol. III: The Care of the Self. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon, 1986. Histoire de sexualité. V. III: Le Souci de soi. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1984.

________. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Trans. anon. New York: Random House, 1970. Les Mots et les choses. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1966.

Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press, 1992.

Harpham, Geoffrey Gait. “Ethics.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. 387-405.

Hegel, G. W. F. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977. Phänomenologie des Geistes. 5th ed. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1952.

Irigaray, Luce. An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993. Ethique de la différence sexuelle. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1984.

________. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. Speculum de 1’autre femme. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1974.

________. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. New York: Cornell UP, 1985. Ce Sexe qui n’en est pas un. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1977.

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. La Fiction du politique: Heidegger, l’art et la politique. Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1987.

Levinas, Emmanuel. The Levinas Reader. Ed. Sean Hand. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988. Le Différend. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1983.

________. Heidegger and “the jews”. Trans. Andreas Michel and Mark S. Roberts. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990. Heidegger et “les juifs”. Paris: Editions Galilee, 1988.

________. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984. La Condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1979.

Megill, Allan. Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.

Miller, James. The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Random House, 1967.

Veyne, Paul. “The Final Foucault and His Ethics.” Trans. Catherine Porter and Arnold J. Davidson. Critical Inquiry 20 (1993): 1-9.

About the writer
Beverly Voloshin is Professor of English at San Francisco State University and has also taught at the University of Rochester, where she was a founding member of the Program in Women’s Studies. She edited American Literature, Culture, and Ideology: Essays in Memory of Henry Nash Smith (1990) and the recent special issue of Pacific Coast Philology (40, number 2 [2005]) on literature and the history of the book. She is the author of articles on American literature and on literary theory and criticism. Her other interests include painting and drawing.

This article appeared in Pacific Coast Philology 33 (1998): 69-86, and is reprinted with the kind permission of that journal.

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