We don't normally think of ethics as having anything to do with aesthetics, but ethical questions enter into our discussions about art all the time. One ethical issue is the proper subject matter of art (the portrayal of ethnicity and race in novels, for instance), and another is the ends to which we put art (the controversy some years ago over an oversized Richard Serra sculpture taking up too much of a government building plaza in New York City).
There's been a lot of discussion about the recent ethical turn in both our consideration of art and our politics. That's why it's worth looking at Alain Badiou's Ethics: An Inquiry into the Understanding of Evil. For Badiou, our only ethical imperative is fidelity to a truth. This is a radical, and very abstract, departure from the two generally accepted alternatives. First is the Kantian ethical imperative, which is indifferent to a particular situation. Ethical guidelines are written into the law itself, which we are compelled to follow, much like we're compelled to recognize beauty when we see it. The problem with this approach is that it's a lot easier to recognize evil than it is the good, and our encounters with other people have a tendency to be rooted in pity rather than transcendental law. The second alternative is an ethics founded upon respect for an other. This position is generally identified with Levinas and remains the dominant ethical foundation in the United States. For Badiou difference is a given; he wants an ethics based on something we have in common. Besides, in practice we respect otherness only when the other resembles us. Badiou dismisses both positions as ultimately conformist, even nihilistic. Basically, the unethical is anything that messes with our happiness. We suspect we don't deserve our happiness, but we're fiercely protective of it nevertheless. Furthermore, the ethical regime of the post-industrial West is deeply conservative in its unwieldy combination of free market policies and dark imaginings of catastrophe.
Badiou is a Marxist of sorts, but until he starts dropping the name of the great French psychoanalyst, you wouldn't know he's also a Lacanian. For Lacan, we're made up of the laws of language and the history of our desires, and neither contains any absolute norms. They're outside of good and evil. For Badiou good and evil arise from the truth, which itself arises out an event. The event is a traumatic experience that "seizes" (Badiou uses that word a lot) us while punching a hole in received knowledge. Badiou doesn't throw out many examples of a truth emerging from an event, but one he offers is Schoenberg's invention of the twelve-tone scale, which he calls "a musical event." The truth grabs you and makes you into a true person rather than just somebody who is trying to get along in life. You are both fully yourself and something larger, and that larger something is a truth. To live ethically is a kind of religious calling, although Badiou would be horrified to read it described that way. Indeed, Ethics sometimes reads more like The Ecstacy of St. Teresa than a philosophical tract. We leave behind our particular interests and devote ourselves to the consequences, whatever they may be, of the truth. Badiou speaks of being "riven" by the truth, a division that he likens to the Lacanian concept of the unconscious. The truth, like our desire, can never be fully known to us. In fact, Badiou cites Lacan's ethical maxim "do not give up on your desire" as the basis for our own ethical imperative.
When Lacan speaks of desire, he doesn't mean the desire for a Corvette or for the Cubs to win the World Series. Rather, desire is more like a mysterious and obsessive return to something we can't quite identify but we know we ignore at our own peril. Badiou's version of Lacan's ethical maxim is "keep going!" Badiou urges us not to give up on what we don't know about ourselves. We should remain in the grip of truth, even when we no longer feel caught up in the process of its unfolding. Don't give in to the temptation of returning to the commonly accepted, the ordinary, and the already known. In fact, slacking off from your pursuit of the truth is one form of evil, according to Badiou. I'll get to Badiou's definition of evil in my next post, which will come in a day or so.
Before I do, I should mention a couple of points one may want to keep in mind before delving into Badiou's notion of an ethic of truth. First, his ethics aren't situational. He's not much help in guiding us through the mundane ethical decisions we have to make every day. And Badiou doesn't offer much incentive for maintaining fidelity to the truth. The truth is its own reward. He denies his ethical philosophy is ascetic, but of course it is. "Is there a renunciation when a truth seizes me?" he wonders aloud. "Certainly not, since this seizure manifests itself by unequalled intensities of existence." A life of Spinozan intellectual beatitude sounds positively monkish--Badiou at one point admits that truth is asocial--but as Lacan reminds us, even pleasure has its truth content.