j_spot the journal of social and political thought


Volume 1, Issue 3
Ethics & Debt (Or, Debt to the Other)

Does 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 inseparable.

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.

In her 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.

"Guiltless 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

"Sublime 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 fear alterity.

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.

"Beyond 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 the ethical.

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.

Kathryn Walker,
for the editorial collective


Margaret Gibson

"Guiltless Credit and the Moral Economy of Salvation"

Joanna Zylinska

"Sublime Speculations: The Economy of the Gift in Feminist Ethics"

Chris Anderson-Irwin

"Beyond Economy, or the Infinite Debt to the Other: Caputo and Derrida on Obligation and Responsibility"


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