ethics operate as an economy? We
speak of the burden of responsibility; is this burden not a
debt? Being responsible, do I simply respond as if to a question,
or is there some force of accountability calculating my response.
I sense my duty; I know that I owe. But what is it that I owe
and by what authority am I indebted? How and how much do I pay?
And - since economy doesn't seem to work without exchange -
for what purpose, what gain, did I accrue this debt? Who, when,
and where are the actors in the exchange?
For this, our third issue of j_spot,
we asked for an account of the moral economy. The call for submissions
for issue number three solicited a problematization and questioning
of ethics. In seeking accounts of moral authority, the moral
subject, and the space for morality, the call situated itself
in a post-Kantian ethics that moves beyond the transcendental
subject and modernity. All three articles presented here speak
from a position from which the very possibility of a subject
is in question, where difference serves as the driving force
for a critique of ethics, and where commensurability and exchange
as such are radically interrogated. In their own way, each article
further underscores that even the space for speaking about these
questions is far from solid, that speech itself is contentious.
Traditional ethical theory depends on
a subject that functions as a ground-zero for a moral calculus.
After modernity, in a theoretical space determined by the destabilization
and absence of an absolute subject, the very possibility of
a moral calculus and a moral economy becomes uncertain. In this
fragmentary space, commensurability and exchange are challenged
and hence the necessity for a reconceptualization of the nature
and possibility of ethics presents itself. The articles in this
issue all respond to what might be taken as a new ethical imperative
to reconsider the ethical; all three reframe the possible grounds
of the ethical, as well as argue for the repositioning of ethics
outside of traditional models of economic morality.
In this project of repositioning, Derrida's
conception of the gift figures prominently. For Derrida, the
gift confounds economic relations because it operates as a giving
that does not require or expect a return. The articles take
this theorization of the gift as offering a model or modality
of self-other interaction that is not defined by purely economic
exchange, but rather opens onto the infinitude and irreducible
excess of the other.
This interdisciplinary reworking of the
question of ethics remains in keeping with the overall direction
of j_spot the Journal of Social and Political Thought.
Taking up discourses of aesthetics, politics, religion, and
feminism, the essays here effect an intersection of a variety
of theoretical discourses. Implicitly or explicitly, the pieces
concentrate on the relationship of ethics and politics as grounded
in a relationship to the other. Both Margaret Gibson's "Guiltless
Credit and the Moral Economy of Salvation" and Joanna Zylinska's
"Sublime Speculations: The Economy of the Gift in Feminist Ethics"
insist that ethics answer to and take into account the feminine
as a site of irreducible alterity. Chris Anderson-Irwin's "Beyond
Economy or the Infinite Debt to the Other" explicitly focuses
on the political, arguing that the ethical and political are
Gibson's essay works through a critique
of Christianity by analyzing its economy of salvation. Drawing
upon the work of Irigaray and Derrida, Gibson reads the Christian
narrative of fall and salvation underpinning this economy as
fundamentally a story of masculine property relations, rooted
in a necessary and prior exclusion of the feminine. Gibson demonstrates
that because the Christian logic of salvation requires a passage
through death, negativity, and the feminine, it essentially
excludes the feminine. Here 'man' passes through woman as an
error in order to discover the right path to salvation. The
Christian path to the divine is thus limited to the masculine.
Consequently, Gibson insists on the necessity of defining a
path which allows or will allow women access to their own feminine
projection of the divine.
Gibson contrasts the logic of salvation
with Derrida's pure gift. Unlike a pure gift that expects no
returns, the sacrificial gift for Gibson is already situated
within a structure of reward, return, and restitution. Sacrifice
is made with the implicit understanding that salvation will
be granted. Gibson further argues that the feminine-maternal
is only ever a meditative moment in the logic of salvation;
for this reason, the feminine-maternal occupies a position outside
of the economy of salvation, and thereby comes closest to Derrida's
formation of the pure gift.
efforts to define a feminine path toward the divine, Gibson
draws upon Irigaray's theory of the touch, suggesting that
the touch poses an alternative to the logic of transgression
inherent in the Christian account of salvation. Where transgression
simply and only marks a passing through otherness and through
the feminine, the touch is capable of meeting with the other.
Unlike transgression, the touch does not establish one subjectivity
at the expense of the other, but rather opens up the possibility
of a continuous development of both subjects.
Credit and the Moral Economy of Salvation"
Zylinska's "Sublime Speculations: The
Economy of the Gift in Feminist Ethics" investigates contemporary
claims that the sublime offers the only possible mode of dealing
with modernity. She suggests that at the heart of the sublime
is a relationship to alterity, difference, and the other, which
attests to the possibility of the sublime as a basis for the
ethical. Nevertheless, because Zylinska argues that traditional
notions of the sublime are fundamentally masculine, and characterized
simultaneously by an impetus to capitalize on excess and a fear
of difference, she calls for a reconfiguration of the sublime.
The sublime is understood, then, to be founded on a modern subject
that, on the one hand, is incapable of dealing with the feminine
as a site of irreducible difference, and, on the other, incessantly
reduces excess to sameness.
Zylinska thus posits a feminine sublime
as one in which the difference of alterity is engaged, enacted,
and preserved, as a counter to the traditional sublime and its
inability to sustain a relationship to difference. It is precisely
this feminine sublime that subtends Zylinska's development of
a feminist ethics grounded in a respectful relationship to alterity
without a reduction of the other to the same. For Zylinska,
Derrida's notion of
Speculations: The Economy of the Gift in Feminist Ethics"
|the gift is based on
a logic of donation and generosity, and is thereby situated
outside of the circle of symbolic exchange. She argues that
her conception of the feminine sublime adheres to the logic
of the Derridean gift, in that such a sublime proposes a
counter-logic of infinite expenditure; such counter-logic
serves as a basis for an ethics that does not reduce or
In "Beyond Economy or the Infinite Debt
to the Other: Caputo and Derrida on Obligation and Responsibility"
Anderson-Irwin asks whether post-modernity can even establish
an ethics, once the transcendental subject has been discounted.
This is the question Anderson-Irwin poses specifically to Caputo
and Derrida, for he takes these two thinkers as offering important
responses to post-modern ethical dilemmas. Both thinkers situate
ethics in a nexus of obligation and responsibility, where each
term is fundamentally subtended by a relation to an other.
Anderson-Irwin shows how Caputo and Derrida
differ in their understanding of the essential relation to the
other. Derrida, we are shown, conceives of the relation to the
other in terms of an infinitude i.e. as a relationship
that exceeds all calculative measures and is ultimately characterized
by a failure to measure up. In contrast, Caputo conceptualizes
the relation to the other in somewhat more economic terms. For
Caputo, the other to whom I am most responsible must be determined
through a calculation that determines who is most worthy.
Economy or the Infinite Debt to the Other: Caputo and
Derrida on Obligation and Responsibility"
Anderson-Irwin not only explicitly
raises the question of the relation between ethics and
politics, but further establishes the imperative that
the two cannot and should not be separated. In recognizing
the importance of political exigencies, Anderson-Irwin
insists that ethics must be capable of practical employment.
Yet, at the same time, he refuses to let go of the importance
of the Derridean conception of the ethical space as situated
beyond the economic. Ultimately, Anderson-Irwin contends
that positioning ethics in
terms of infinitude - that is, in terms of the impossibility
and thus endless failure of measuring up - does not foreclose
on the possibility of maintaining the political within
All of the articles collected here have
carefully defined and work to establish a space for ethics within
a difficult, fragmented, terrain. Working with and through aesthetic
and feminist theory, religion, and politics, the articles productively
articulate conceptions of the ethical that point beyond modern,
calculative morality. And so, the editorial collective wishes
to express our gratitude -- to acknowledge our collective debt
to the contributors to j_spot's ethics and debt issue.
for the editorial collective