Modernity and ethics: The ghost of terror in French thought
“Modernity and Ethics” examines the different incarnations of terror in literary and philosophical works, as well as in film, in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. I follow texts engaged in thinking the dialectic between Enlightenment and violence and which had critical influence on French and Francophone thought in particular and contemporary global thought in general. Three principal questions emerge from my reading of these works: First, in light of the turbulent post-colonial reality in North Africa and France, as well as the Middle East, are there unique historical moments that call for a state of exception in which the law is suspended for raison d’Etat, or does ethics demand a rethinking of insurrection? Second, how do the positions which these writers take toward the understanding of violence shift the ideological frameworks that articulate or contest the conceptualization of terror? And third, what are the ethical stakes in the intersection of art and resistance?
In works by Genet and films by Godard which confront the question of revolution I trace an ethics of resistance that is grounded more in the artistic interpretation of lived conflicts than in political endorsement or condemnation of violence. I analyze the notion of the gaze in Genet’s work, and of time in films by Godard. I examine the continuing dialogue of modern thinkers such as Marx, Arendt, Benjamin, and Lyotard with the ethics of universalism founded by Enlightenment thought. The tension of this dialogue is exemplified in Hegel’s conceptualization of the Reign of Terror as the logical consequence of an ideological philosophy. Modernity is haunted by the relationship between two seemingly incompatible phenomena: the Declaration of the Rights of Man and terror. The philosophical debate illuminates crucial questions that indicate the difficulty in articulating a viable understanding of modern conflicts. With a reading of Lacan’s essay “Kant avec Sade,” in which psychoanalysis confronts (Kant's) moral categories with Sade's literary formulation of "happiness in evil," I analyze the discourse of evil in a 19th-century short story by Villiers. A psychoanalytic analysis of the literary text provides important insights into the understanding of categorical ethical formulations.
0900: Film studies