Postmodernity and the ethics of care: Situating Bauman's social theory

Cultural Values 2 (1):87-116 (1998)
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Abstract

This article is primarily concerned with Zygmunt Bauman's ‘adoption’ of Levinas's ethic of primordial responsibility, and his attempt to found a ‘sociological’ critique of postmodern ambivalence upon the erasure of the face and loss of moral proximity. I have argued that the reading of Levinas which Bauman presents in Modernity and the Holocaust and Postmodern Ethics is radically incompatible with the redemptive significance of the Levinasian commandment; and that consequently, his attempt to determine the cognitive and aesthetic forms involved in the adiaphorising trend of postmodern societies is unable to salvage the ethical relation from its own comprehensive/totalising necessity. I have also suggested that Derrida's reading of Totality and Infinity, discloses a certain ‘provocation’ in Levinas's writing; one which gestures towards a conception of ‘the ethical’ as an unforeseen possibility deployed within the resources of social identity. Thus, the idea of ‘situating’ Bauman's thought refers to what I consider to be his ambiguous position with regard to the ‘reflective’ project of a critical theory, and the transcendent necessity of the Levinasian commandment. Ultimately, it is this ambiguity which structures Bauman's writing of the ‘postmodern condition’. For having described the overwhelming powers of cognitive and aesthetic ‘heteronomy’ in the postmodern world, his only recourse is to a ‘politics of distant consequences’ in which the absolute difference of the face would have its originary demand intensified and retransmitted. Such a programmatic demand, I have argued, is radically at odds with an ‘ethical’ reception of racial, sexual or cultural ‘otherness’.

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References found in this work

Of grammatology.Jacques Derrida - 1997 - Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Edited by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
Totality and infinity.Emmanuel Levinas - 1961/1969 - Pittsburgh,: Duquesne University Press.
Writing and difference.Jacques Derrida - 1978 - Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Negative dialectics.Theodor W. Adorno - 1973 - New York: Continuum.

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