Michael Kinnucan

The Empty Subject and the Art of Ethics


Read afterthoughts to this piece from David Richter.

On Leaving

What a pleasure it is to cut ties! Quitting a job, ending a relationship, leaving a city—these decisions are frightening, but they’re also exhilarating. Even beyond the practical reliefs they offer—you’ll never have to listen to that boss or have that fight again—they remind you of a simple fact that you forget almost constantly: you can always leave. Our lives are constrained for the most part not by necessity but by habit and a sense of obligation to whatever’s around us. And, to be sure, mostly we like it that way. But there are moments when we feel capable, suddenly, of flight, when we slough off habits and default on every debt, when we even burn our bridges merely to see them burned. And what a joy this can be! The complexity of our lives as friends and lovers, coworkers and neighbors and daughters, the endless considerations and subtleties of such ties, become suddenly senseless; we can, quite simply, walk away. In the decision to move on one learns just how light one can travel; one becomes emptier and that much more free.

The intoxication of leaving is not hard to understand: after all, social life is a tissue of unchosen but compelling and endlessly ramified obligations, pretty much from the get-go. We’re born into debt. Before we learn to speak, we learn to understand ourselves as obligated: to the mother who nursed us, the father who clothed us, to everyone who has sacrificed so much for us. We owe obedience, care, and even love. And life goes on this way, in the red: obligations to teachers, playmates, lovers, bosses, the society which protects us and the God who died for our sins. The aggrieved teenager’s cry, “I never asked to be born!”, is a desperate protest against the injustice of precisely this situation: how can I be in debt when I never chose to borrow? But it’s undercut by the very grammar of the question. You were born; someone bore you (and ruined her figure, and sat by your sickbed, and wiped your ass, and so forth) and the least you can do is call them every once in a while, the least you can do is a bit of work around the house, the least you can do is adore her… Embodiment is obligation. This strange kind of debt is the origin of morality in the individual psyche: morality is the obligation we undertake by existing. The creditor may be generalized (from parents to society, mankind, God), and the terms of the loan change constantly, but the debt is never forgiven and never repaid.

And yet one can always leave. One can refuse not merely to pay the debt (we’re all always a bit behind on our payments anyway) but even to acknowledge it; one can say, your decision to care about me or depend on me or expect of me was your own, let it be on your head, it means nothing to me. I will not ask and I will not receive; count me out. We do not accumulate obligations through choice, we accumulate them merely by living, by having a body and a name. But for every obligation, at every moment, we do possess a negative choice: we can refuse it.

The Empty Subject of Ethics

Presumably there was never a time when morality did not confront this possibility, but its history as a philosophical problematic can be traced to Cartesian doubt. The Cartesian epoché, doubt taken as far as doubt will go, leads, obviously, to the collapse of the world as a system of relations; whatever continues to appear (shapes swimming before our eyes, the heat of a supposed fire) takes on the uncanny appearance of a projection for our benefit, in itself meaningless and profoundly suspect. As we all know, only the subject survives this collapse: the subject remains stable in his doubt. What I want to draw attention to is that the person who began doubting is not the subject who emerges with new self-assurance: the collapse of the world is the collapse of his identity. Descartes the man was a son and father and friend; Descartes the cogito was none of these things, no longer even a name. He was nothing more than the activity of doubting—nothing more than the process of collapsing the world. The subject of the cogito is a negative subject, one defined by its capacity to destroy the appearances and survive them. When the world collapses, the self collapses too; we are left with the subject, a black hole in the middle of nothing. The Cartesian subject is a hypostatized negation.

To be sure, the negative is only a fleeting moment in Descartes’ argument—on its basis he reconstructs a world which looks more or less as it did before. (It even has a God!) The world flickers but does not disappear. And yet the subject’s relationship to the world is permanently and radically altered. No longer does our belief in the appearances depend on external authority, convenience, or habit; now, for every belief we hold, we possess a ground. The subject of knowledge dies the death of doubt and is reborn as the subject of science.

But what of the subject of ethics? The world, after all, is not merely a series of doubtful appearances but a network of pressing entanglements, of uses and obligations; as the world flickers out, so do they. But the restoration of the world as object of science by no means guarantees its return as object of ethics. The negative subject becomes anonymous, and precisely his anonymity (his freedom from the order of custom and doxa) lends certainty to his knowledge. Science can restore his certainty—but can it restore his name?

The subject of science is and should be impersonal, without prejudice or partiality; the subject of ethics is necessarily particular (someone’s husband or daughter or friend, the citizen of a given country, the creature of a God). Cartesian doubt, in producing the negative subject, produces the problem which has since been clichéd as follows: one cannot reason from an “is” to an “ought.” In fact we reason this way all the time: I am his father, so I ought to care for him. But after Descartes, we say: I may assume the place of his father, I may share his name, but these are contingencies, promises I have made and places I have occupied. Potentially, I am not this man; potentially, I am no one at all.

Descartes recognized the moral consequences of his thought in a telling and ambiguous way. In the Discourse on Method, he acknowledges the ethical risks of doubt and seeks a minimal “provisional morality” until such time as certainty regarding ethical matters may be restored. (Tellingly, there is no analogous “provisional science” to tide us over until the true science makes its appearance; there is no need for it. The scientific subject can live in hope of the gradual but infinite progress he may not live to see; for the ethical subject, demands are always pressing, and judgment approaches with death.)

The four maxims Descartes sets out for himself more or less show how he’s pinned. He decides (1) to obey the customs and believe the religion in which he has happened to be raised; (2) to endeavor in all cases to change himself rather than the world; (3) to act decisively on whatever new beliefs he should acquire through his method, treating them as certain even when they appear doubtful; and finally, (4) to pursue his method, continuing to search for truth. A strange and characteristic list: the quietist conservatism of the first maxim (if one no longer believes in anything, one might as well act as if one did) hard by the dangerous radicalism of the third (the subject decides truth for himself, and to believe a truth is to act on it). Descartes avoids the manifest contradiction here only by indefinitely postponing it in his fourth maxim. Morality cannot wait for science (hence the need for a provisional morality), but neither can it leap ahead of science (scientific doubt having suspended all customary ethics); the lack of certainty becomes a state of sin, and to know becomes a moral obligation.


Illustration by Wesley Ryan Clapp

In the meantime, the empty subject finds embodiment in two related forms: the manic and the depressive. The manic subject of negation recognizes in himself an immense and unsuspected freedom. To be sure, the doctrine of free will has been central to the culture of the West since the dawn of the Christian era—but in Christianity, only two options are offered to the free subject. One may turn toward God, or one may turn away. The believer is indebted, infinitely indebted, to the God who made him and then died for his sins; he can pay the interest on his debt in gratitude, or flee it and lose himself in the world. The negative subject attains a higher degree of freedom than the Christian soul: he possesses the capacity to determine what sin is for himself. He need not recognize God’s claim. The Christian soul bears the mark of its maker, as gratitude and as sin; on the empty subject nothing can be written.

Obligation can inhere in a body, and it can inhere in a soul. It cannot inhere in a subject. The knowing subject is not a substance, it has no attributes, not a debt and not even a name. It carries nothing from the past to the future—nothing but the nothing that it is.

This possibility shows itself most fully in the figure of the great atheist, a figure who is perhaps no longer possible today: the atheist who does not deny God but refuses him. Milton was perhaps the first to imagine this. The great atheist does not busy himself with disproving God. He speaks as follows: “You say that your God died thousands of years ago for my sins, and perhaps he did; but what is this to me? I did not ask for this gift and I will not accept it. I will not confess myself guilty, not even to be absolved. You threaten me with Hell for this—to no avail. I am too proud to pray merely for my safety. I do not cower before the threats of earthly tyrants, and I will not bow before eternal threats. Your Almighty must seek his flatterers elsewhere.”

Milton’s Satan explains, characteristically, that what he could not bear in heaven was the obligation to be grateful. He will not see himself in debt. But once one refuses this debt, the existence of God no longer entails obedience. Perhaps there remains an omnipotent being with the power to punish and reward, but his relation to the subject is now merely external; his punishment is no longer justice. We may obey him out of necessity, as we obey the police; but that is all. And is it not more noble to refuse? The power of such defiance haunts Milton’s work and Shakespeare’s; it came to obsess Dostoevsky. In Melville’s hands, in Captain Ahab, it very nearly makes a man a god. 1

And yet all these figures come to bad ends, and with good reason. The empty subject is negative; in the end it can only refuse. One burns one’s bridges, one burns the world, one rages against the sky—and then what? What is there to do? The brave and the fictional (Ahab, Satan) seek their deaths, heap defiance upon defiance and spend themselves scorning all punishment, daring death. They prove their negative force by negating themselves.

Hence the depressive position. The negative subject is omnipotent because he is empty. Commitments fall away or reveal themselves as vile habit, he can very well defy God and face death—but why should he? In recognizing this, the empty subject enters the depressive position—the flames die out and a burnt-over wasteland remains, within as without. The subject’s freedom is freedom for nothing—he can command himself but knows nothing to obey. In the absence of duty, base desires may come to fill the void; one may drown oneself in fleshy pleasures or live prudently, avoiding danger—but in either case one abandons negativity for the animal in which it resides. Ivan Karamazov’s story is characteristic here: without God to obey, he simply follows his greed.

The quintessential expression of this position is Pascal’s wager: nothing is certain, no truth binds, disbelief is dangerous and offers no reward. Why not believe in God? At least, perhaps, it pays.

Short Shrift on Kant

Kant was the first to state this problem in all its starkness, and the first to propose a solution. For the transcendental subject of knowledge, all motivation (custom, superstition, reward, threat) is heteronomy, unfreedom, rule from without; what, then, could rule from within? What law can bind the empty subject and yet leave him free? 2

Kant’s gambit was to ground the moral law precisely in the subject’s emptiness—what he called its “formality.” If the subject is undetermined by the particulars of his existence, his actions must be equally undetermined. Let us take the example of lying: suppose you want to call in sick to work today in order to go to the beach. Well, do you think that everyone should call in sick whenever he feels like it? Of course you can’t want this, because if everyone did this all the time it wouldn’t work anymore—your boss would stop believing everyone, including you. If everyone lied, language would break. That’s not what you want. What you want is to be an exception—to let everyone else tell the truth in order to prop up the system while you game it in order to lie in the sun. But what, here, is being excepted, what is being obeyed? Not the free subject you are, but the warm body you inhabit; not you, but an animal. To make an exception of yourself is to exchange identification with what is highest in you (the formal subject) for enslavement to your lowest desires, to your body and your ego and your name.

Kant tells us that we may will only what can be legislated universally without contradiction. “Universally” here means “as if you were willing for everyone,” which means “as if you were willing for no one in particular,” which means “as if you were willing as no one.” The empty subject is no one, and this is what makes him free. Kant tells us: you are no one, and you’d better start acting like it.

Has Kant succeeded in his aim, producing a moral subject who can sustain negation? Hardly. If the hero of negation described above goes down in flames, dying to demonstrate his freedom, the Kantian subject does just the same, only more slowly. After all, Kant’s moral law is negative in its every commandment: one does one’s duty only insofar as one resists the temptation to make an exception of oneself. Even right action is not moral if we do it simply because we want to: what is that but a secret heteronomy? The Kantian moral subject stamps out his instincts and desires one by one, until he is at last pure of self, absolutely universal. Is this not impossible, to be a no one? Kant acknowledges that a lifetime is not enough to achieve it. And here he introduces his most terrifying moral innovation: he demands personal immortality, not so that the just may be rewarded, but so that we can have forever to become just. The subject will spend an eternity asymptotically approaching the nothing. An eternity of purgatory and no heaven at the end: the categorical imperative is but a cruel refinement of the negative subject’s drive to death.

The Kantian moral individual is a dyad at war with itself: the subject determined merely as capacity to negate pitted against its “body” in the broadest sense (desires, passions, selfhood more broadly) whose sole ethical potential lies in their own destruction. Neither side of this dyad makes sense without the other: the body’s potential is to be destroyed, the subject’s potential is to destroy it. Hence the war can never end.

Hegel: Labor and the Technics of Death

The empty subject finds itself at an impasse; Kant’s morality suspends but does not resolve it. Its power to remain, the infinite independence which made it the ground of the world, turns out to be illusory: it exists as the movement of negation, and for this reason it is parasitic on what it negates. This parasitism can be extended to infinity as in Kant, but it cannot be eliminated. Hence its intimate and ambiguous relationship to death. To sacrifice its life is both the highest expression of its power (it is independent even of its own existence) and the only possible relief from the obligations of this power, the only way to have done with negation. The truth of the empty subject is its corpse.

Hegel’s moral thought begins in the Phenomenology of Spirit’s master-slave dialectic as a confrontation with this aporia. The empty subject meets another of his kind, and this other can only be a threat: a power perhaps not subject to negation. A battle ensues, as it must: each subject seeks to demonstrate its independence both by negating (killing) the other and by staking its own life in the process. One dies, and one wanders off to do it again. The process could repeat itself indefinitely but for a circumstance as dialectically obscure as it is humanly comprehensible: one day, one of them blinks. He decides that he does not want to die, and begs for his life.

This event—the advent of fear—transforms both subjects. The one who begs becomes the slave, the one who lets him live becomes his master. It would be imprecise, however, to say that the master takes the slave’s freedom. The slave has recognized that his negative freedom is not absolute: he is subject to death. Survival is the condition of his freedom. He recognizes himself, suddenly, not as the subject but as the object of negation. Fear fills the empty subject, and fills him in: he is now a body. His body is in the gift of his lord, and it obligates him. For the slave, the master is his own death hypostasized.

What does the master do with his slave? He sets him to work. And what is work? It is the formation of matter. “Work… is desire held in check, fleetingness staved off; in other words, work forms and shapes the thing. The negative relation to the object becomes its form and something permanent, because it is precisely for the worker that the object has independence.” For the master, the negativity of the world increases now that he possesses a slave: objects present themselves purely for his enjoyment. His dinner comes prepared, and he eats it. For the slave, on the other hand, the object is not simply negated; it is now transformed. Matter presents itself not as the potential to be negated but as the potential to become.

Here the irony of the dialectic emerges. Apparently, the slave has lost: he lives in fear and in labor. In fact, though, he is the victor. The master is enmeshed in the cycle of negation, parasitic on the world of objects; the slave has found a way out. In a world saturated by the fear of death, he can experience his body as the positive potential for survival; in a world of objects to be formed, he can express his negative power in a way which does not destroy itself. The constitutive war of the Kantian subject has been overcome. For Kant the body, the world, and the self are only limitations of the empty subject, the potential to be destroyed, and this destruction can never be complete. For Hegel’s slave the world possesses the potential to express the subject; morality can be self-cultivation, Bildung, instead of self-destruction.

Naturally, the slave isn’t there yet: cooking dinner does not express his essential freedom. The rest of the Phenomenology will be concerned with discovering a product adequate to this task. The product will turn out to be a politics. A free society (one which both cultivates and expresses our freedom) is, for Hegel, man’s highest task; the end of history is the end of this project. The “historical turn” in nineteenth-century philosophy, which begins with Hegel, is better understood as a turn to techne; man understood here not as the world’s knower but as its producer.

Hence Hegel’s most famous and controversial view: history has an end. A history imagined as labor is finished when the work is done. Commentators have long found this view disturbing, often for the wrong reasons: the accusation that Hegel’s dialectic justifies an oppressive Prussian monarchy simply does not hold water, and the observation that history has not in fact ended quite yet is superficial. (So what if Hegel got his dates wrong?) The truly revolting aspect of the “end of history” is the one pointed out by one of the boldest Hegelians of this century, Alexandre Kojève: the end of history means that man is essentially a worker and that his essential work is done. Kojève believed that after the end of history (which he associated with global communism) man would return to the status of animal. There would be nothing left to do. The end of history is the end of man. We have nothing left to do but amuse ourselves.

The end of history is a necessary implication of Hegel’s understanding of techne. Production is not open-ended; the worker produces a thing for use, and is finished. Production is a means to an end. Thankfully, though, the concept of techne contains a productive ambiguity. If it is labor, it is also art. Art does not conform to the rule of necessity, but produces new and ever stranger rules; the creation of art, unlike production, is open-ended. It is this second sense of techne that Nietzsche will exploit.

Nietzsche: Art and the Technics of Cruelty

The second essay of The Genealogy of Morality begins with a profoundly ambiguous exploration of memory. Memory is the way the past stays with us, it is therefore a kind of submission to the past: memory accumulates within us, the world writes its many names on our skin. We start smooth and grow wrinkled. If this is so, forgetting is not what we think it is, it is not an unfortunate but natural erosion of our accumulated experience. It is an active force, and one for which we should be thankful; it is the hand which wipes the slate clean so that something new can be written. What, after all, is more pitiful than the man who cannot forget, who hangs on to every petty insult and meaningless debt, who chews and can’t swallow? The past and the future are at war in us, fighting for our attention, for our love; forgetting makes the present possible.

And yet there is another kind of memory, a memory which is not submission to the past but control of the future: there is the promise, the “memory of the will.” We forget how daring, how nearly insane, it is to make a promise. Marriage, for instance: Think of what may happen in ten years, think of the jobs in other cities, the temptations from new loves, think merely of the possibility (remote now, perhaps, but after all not unlikely) of boredom, of falling out of love. And yet we do it! We say, yes, I will still be here in ten years, and in twenty, because I will still want to. To be sure, promises like this may degenerate into habit, and they may be broken. But the very idea of such a promise—the idea of daring to place oneself above fate, to legislate one’s future and expect obedience—does it not suggest a man above contingency, and almost above fate? To be able to promise oneself both requires and grants immense power.

Two memories, then: the memory which inflicts us with an unchosen past, and that which offers us a chosen future. Trauma and fidelity, one might say. The question poses itself as follows: how can the freedom to promise emerge from the capacity to be mastered by one’s past? How can an animal whose original freedom is the freedom to let go acquire the opposite freedom—the power to sustain himself?

Nietzsche’s answer, like Hegel’s, returns us to a primal scene of domination. Memory begins literally as a relation of debt. The creditor must create a memory in the debtor—and how did he do so, originally? The beginning of debt, “like the beginning of everything great on earth, was soaked in blood, thoroughly and for a long time.” The creditor very reasonably presumes that “only that which never ceases to hurt is never forgotten”; he produces memory through terrible punishment. The punishment for non-payment of debt (and as Nietzsche notes, ancient law codes demanded the most gruesome punishments for this) has a double significance: it is not only incentive to the debtor but compensation for the creditor. Because, after all, is it not a pleasure to exercise power and cause pain? If the creditor cannot be paid in cash, he may find his advantage in blood. This claim, the terrifying centerpiece of Nietzsche’s psychology, provokes tremendous resistance in modern readers (as Nietzsche well knows)—but we should be wary of blaming him too much. We have seen above how much cruelty drives Kant’s morality; and after all, is not the idea that suffering can pay off debt at the heart of Christianity? The dark logic, rarely noticed, of the crucifixion, is simply this: the debt we owe to God the Father must be paid in the suffering of God the Son.

Is debt, then, the origin of the ability to make promises? No—or at least not directly. The debtor may keep his promise out of terror, but he cannot promise himself; he is ruled from without, not by his conscience. Memory in its higher form originates elsewhere, in another kind of domination: sudden conquest. Hierarchical society originates when one group of men, the famous “blond beasts” without conscience, conquer another group and enslave them. The slaves retain all their animal instincts—and first of all those of cruelty—but they may no longer give these instincts free reign; the terrifying threat of the blond beasts demands self-control. What happens to the cruel will to power in men suddenly deprived of all power over their world? It does not disappear; instead, it is internalized. Men begin to take pleasure in hurting themselves. The endless, baroque complexities of an instinct whose natural outlet has been forever blocked are the beginning of conscience; it is the will to dominate turned against oneself that permits the promise.

Superficially, Nietzsche’s story is strikingly close to Hegel’s: the ethical subject begins as a slave. The “blond beasts” Nietzsche is often accused of loving are without conscience; like Hegel’s master, they have no future. Set to work, he becomes capable of Bildung. But the analogy is misleading: the work is different. Hegel’s slave, like every artisan, performs work as a means to an end; the Nietzschean subject works for the pleasure of domination. Hegel’s slave abandons mastery, while Nietzsche’s discovers scintillating new forms of control. In Nietzsche’s enslaved man, the will to power, deprived of its natural end, becomes endless. Hegel’s technics of labor leads to the end of history; Nietzsche’s joyful cruelty leads to the overman.

1 Walter Benjamin says of Greek tragedy that in these plays the Greeks proved that they were better than their gods.

2 I should like to take this opportunity to clear up a common misunderstanding concerning the stakes of modern moral philosophy, and I hope my readers will forgive me if I insult their intelligence. It is sometimes suggested that modern moral philosophy must find a way to “justify” everyday moral action now that we no longer believe in God. After all, if there’s no Hell, why not rape, steal and kill? But of course the man in the street will tell you that there are a thousand reasons not to rape, steal and kill, as for example pity for victims, desire for approbation, habit, a prudent view of the police. A moral philosopher who imagined that the fabric of human society depended on his work would be guilty of laughable self-importance and shocking ignorance of the human heart. Rather, moral philosophy since Kant has concerned itself with the analytical coherence and historical possibility of a certain very exacting concept of freedom. (And freedom, as Nietzsche tells us, is the dream of slaves.)