TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

On the Ethics of the Exception

On Tuesdays at the TELOSscope blog, we reach back into the archives and highlight an article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Jennifer Wang looks at Amos Morris-Reich’s “Simmel’s and Lacan’s Ethics of the Exception,” from Telos 123 (Spring 2002).

In “Simmel’s and Lacan’s Ethics of the Exception,” Amos Morris-Reich examines in parallel the theoretical proximity of Simmel and Lacan’s post-Kantian ethics of the exception. Historically, the Kantian universal rule met its end at the outbreak of World War I, the horrors of which opened up space for theories on the exception to the rule that did not consider such a structure oxymoronic. The theories of both Lacan and Simmel address the monstrosity of the twentieth century, but are not exclusive to it. They are shown to formulate a structure of rule and exception that takes for inputs life, death, and money. To the question posed by medieval robbers (“your life or your money?”), life is unanimously chosen but what’s of interest is the contradictory ethics grounding each decision.

For the early Simmel, money as substance became overshadowed by money as symbol, consequently subduing the individual life by its objectified life. Of the many social forms spawned by objectified life, money was the strongest. Simmel for a while believed that money was impossible to dethrone. His philosophy of life was born out of his search for a way out of this “tragedy of culture.” Life alone was free from valuation by money and as such, was the exception to the rule of money. Life was the sublimated (pure) exception. Writing during World War I, Simmel’s recognition that death is not exchangeable was extended also to life. The singularity of a life leads to the choice of the exception based on an individual law. The individual life moves from exception to itself becoming a strictly personal law—”tied to the individual’s very essence,” but one purely existential in that it does not consider an “Other.” As for money, that it represented death diametrically opposed it to life and one is implored to choose life over money.

Morris-Reich says that Lacan began where Simmel left off by assuming, and then destabilizing, the existential. The robbers’ question is an instance of Lacan’s vel of alienation, where the choice between being and meaning always results in the loss of the subject. Just as we are “in a constant state of a lack of being,” so are we passed over by the fullness of life, for selecting either life or money would leave us with neither one nor the other. To select money is to have both money and life taken away, but to select life is to be left with life deprived of something. Thus we are forced to lose money, lest we lose everything. Unlike for Simmel, the life we are left with is one lacking something. In this schema, money is in fact on the side of life that generates it as its constitutive exception, that limit which must be posed but cannot be breached without defeating oneself (for to enjoy money is to die in the process). Unlike with Simmel, one cannot simply choose the exception, which Morris-Reich describes so:

The rule generates its own exception. Lacan makes clear that e.g., the prohibition of incest is a structural necessity. Transgressing this prohibition would not bring about happiness, only suffering. The incest prohibition is therefore the prohibition of something that is impossible from the very beginning. In fact, the prohibition is there to sustain the illusion that the impossible is possible, but not allowed. The rule generates an exception. But this exception is impossible to realize. When this transgression is realized, it is self-defeating, and therefore is better avoided in the first place (more enjoyment is mere suffering).

Despite the fact that each acts as the other’s inversion, Morris-Reich points out Simmel and Lacan’s closeness, as both privilege the invaluable exception while choosing life. Simmel conquers the alienation of created forms through an existential philosophy of life centered on individual law. Lacan, on the other hand, says that we are alienated simply because we are speaking animals, and that we choose life because the exception (e.g., full enjoyment of money) is impossible to realize, though structurally necessary to the rule. Their differences lie largely in their theoretical framework—for Simmel, the existentialism of pre-World War II and for Lacan, his development, post-World War II, of the psychoanalytic desiring subject. Ultimately, we must make a choice between the two forms, for along with the theorists themselves, Morris-Reich values a theory of actual decision-making. He finds Simmel’s theory to be more false than Lacan’s, as the latter shows the former’s existential assumptions to be problematic, with the result that the impossibility of choosing pure life supersedes the injunction to make the existential exception a rule. Still, the implication that Lacan’s theory is also false leaves us with the problem of negotiating the rule and the exception in light of, or beyond, both the existential and psychoanalytic framework.

Read the full version of Amos Morris-Reich’s “Simmel’s and Lacan’s Ethics of the Exception” at the TELOS Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at the low rate of $5/article.

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