Ewa Plonowska Ziarek (2001) An Ethics of Dissensus: Postmodernity, Feminism, and the Politics of Radical Democracy.

Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804741034

The Theory of Practice and the Practice of Theory

Tracey Sedinger

Ewa Plonowska Ziarek’s An Ethics of Dissensus: Postmodernity, Feminism, and the Politics of Radical Democracy is an ambitious attempt to provide postmodernity with an ethical ‘foundation.’ As such, it attempts a wide-ranging synthesis of a variety of contemporary postmodern discourses, including the ethical projects of Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-François Lyotard, post-Marxist efforts to forge a radical democracy (Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe), the feminist politics of difference (Patricia Williams and bell hooks), and psychoanalytic theories of sexual difference and embodiment (Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray). In part, the success or failure of this book will depend on both the viability and desirability of forging such a synthesis out of this diversity.

Ziarek argues that, despite the hyper-politicization that postmodernity has apparently inflicted upon contemporary thought, many postmodern projects have been profoundly engaged with a variety of questions that might more properly be called ethical. She does not explicitly state why the ethical, as opposed to the political, should be privileged, nor does she clearly articulate the differences between the two; nevertheless, a politics of radical democracy, the politics proper to our postmodern age, must be ‘articulated in the gap between the ethos of becoming and the ethos of alterity, and between the futural temporality of political praxis and the anarchic diachrony of obligation’ (9). Insofar as much postmodern thinking has been implicitly, perhaps even unconsciously, reliant upon ethical assumptions, she suggests that there have emerged two predominant postmodern ethical approaches: (1) the ethos of becoming, which emphasizes the subject’s freedom to imagine new ways of being; and (2) the ethos of alterity, which emphasizes the subject’s responsibility to and for the Other. Though each ethical project has certain shortcomings (to be discussed later), she argues that they are an important advance on the various ethical systems associated with modernity, which presume a stable, disembodied, autonomous self, and restrict ethics to the individual and private. Ziarek’s project is to forge what she calls an ethics of dissensus that will provide an alternative to an exhausted liberalism (predicated as it is on the superseded autonomous self) and a conservative communitarianism that would return us to a mythic and normalizing community. The neologism ‘dissensus’ (which, with the influence of Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins, appears ubiquitous) refers to an effort to discover an ethics (what the subject should do) that would paradoxically avoid the articulation of any prescriptive norms. For Ziarek, any ethical project that attempts to define a normative content will necessarily run afoul of a radical democracy that, as Chantal Mouffe has argued, cannot prescribe specific Goods for its citizens. An ethics of dissensus takes seriously the irresolvable antagonisms that Laclau and Mouffe have placed at the center of political life, while also adhering to Michel Foucault’s notion of power as inescapable and rhizomatic. Such an ethics therefore refuses any transcendence of power and antagonism in the name of something higher (like humanity), while also attempting to provide a series of minimal ‘oughts’ that, while not prescriptive, nevertheless enjoin us to adopt a certain ‘disposition’ (a respect for and responsibility to alterity).[1]  Hence Ziarek’s repeated use of the adjective ‘anarchic’ to describe the subject’s responsibility to and for the other, since this responsibility is a quasi-transcendental principle that transcends and subtends both discrete political institutions and ethical systems.

In many ways, Levinas is the guiding figure of this book, a topic to which I will return. But first, I will address Ziarek’s discussion of the ethos of becoming, which, in its more aestheticist forms, has been taken as the typical postmodern ethical mode. As Stephen K. White has noted in his book, Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory, political theorists who work in the context of postmodern anti-foundationalism have traditionally been hesitant to augment their various critiques or deconstructions of existing ontologies with their own ontological claims. White therefore reads associates various thinkers with what he calls a ‘weak ontology’: a simultaneous pre- and descriptive way that each has of seeing the world (and the way each thinks the world ought to be seen). Ziarek’s focus on the ethos of becoming is comparable to White’s elucidation of weak ontologies, and, like his, is an important corrective to the relentless negativity of much postmodern theorizing. Hence her desire not to supersede the aestheticist tendencies of such ‘postmodern’ thinkers as Nietzsche, Deleuze, and Foucault. Rather, she argues (in the first chapter on Foucault) that this aestheticist turn, with its playful urge to imagine and invent new forms of life and embodiment, is in fact an important component of both radical democratic projects and contemporary postmodern ethics. This is particularly important given liberal democracy’s longstanding tendency to center political life and discourse around the disembodied subject, a subject that, according to Ziarek as well as many other feminist and anti-racist theorists, is a product of both sexual and racial contracts (see Carole Pateman and Charles Mills). Hence her efforts to supplement Foucauldian discourses on power and embodiment with a variety of psychoanalytic, feminist, and anti-racist thinkers such as Irigaray, Kristeva, Fanon, Williams, and hooks, each of whom emphasizes the specificity that sexual and racial differences introduce into that liberal subject.

But the ethos of alterity is, despite Ziarek’s efforts to forge a synthesis or rapprochement between the two types of ethic, the dominant strand in this book. In many ways, this is because of the privilege afforded to the work of Emmanuel Levinas and psychoanalysis. Each contributes to an ethics of alterity, though in radically different ways. The work of Levinas is necessary because, as Ziarek argues, an ethics of becoming, especially as embodied by Foucault, remains limited by its focus on the care of the self. It therefore lacks the conceptual tools for inserting that self into an intersubjective network, or for locating the subject’s aestheticist urges within a broader social and political context. Ziarek therefore places considerable emphasis on Levinas’s efforts to make responsibility to and for the Other the primary ethical foundation, as well as the very grounds of subjectivity; she also highlights Levinas’ significance for radical democratic struggles against racist, sexist, and classist oppression. However, Ziarek critiques Levinas’ ethics from the position of contemporary feminist, multiculturalist, and anti-racist work (primarily American and French). For example, her second chapter juxtaposes a reading and critique of Levinas (specifically, of his problematic elision of sexual difference) with Patricia Williams’ The Alchemy of Race and Rights, in order to draw out their similarities in terms of the Other’s excentricity to hegemonic discourses. In Levinasian terms, the responsibility to the Other takes place at the level of the saying, a kind of performative excess to any statement, the content of which is defined at the level of the said. Though Ziarek is concerned to detail the manner in which the wrongs of the oppressed cannot be heard within hegemonic discourses (a concern that also animates chapter 3, on Lyotard’s differend), she refuses the possibility of a discourse on justice that could finally ever make the Other fully intelligible, since such intelligibility would itself be a violent and hence unjust appropriation:

What is crucial for my theory of the feminist ethics of dissensus is that this double movement of mediation and the dissemination of difference neither converts the anarchic and asymmetrical relation to the Other into the synoptic vision of social totality nor institutes a new principle of justice based on the communitarian ideal of the shared moral values. (76-7)

In essence, the Other is always excentric to any hegemonic political relationship, and therefore provides a purely formal stance from which the hegemonic consolidation of the said can always be critiqued and resisted.

Ziarek is not content to ground the ethics of dissensus in a relation to the Other that, even in Levinas’ ethics, remains external, if prior, to the subject. If Levinas is in fact the guiding spirit for the book’s first part (chapters 1-3), psychoanalysis becomes a weightier presence in the second part. As Ziarek recognizes, despite the general (and probably accidental) resemblance between Levinas’ advocacy of responsibility for the Other and the American multicultural injunction to respect the Other (primarily, the other’s difference), Levinas’ own efforts to articulate the subject’s relation to the Other often remain caught up within metaphors of paternity and maternity that bespeak a metaphysical stain. In brief, Levinas pays little attention to the problematics of embodiment and sexual difference. Ziarek therefore repeatedly supplements Levinasian thought with the work of a variety of feminist and post-colonial thinkers in order to remedy this oversight, as well as to make Levinas’ ethics more congruent with a political theory that takes the new social movements as a model for a radical democracy, in which different ‘interests’ are partially hegemonized, or articulated via a chain of equivalences (Laclau and Mouffe). But the body that Ziarek ‘adds’ to Levinas is specifically the psychoanalytic body, a body dominated by drives that are only partially bound by fantasized modes of satisfaction.

In Part 2, Ziarek turns to an engagement with ‘the libidinal economy of power and [following Judith Butler] “the psychic life” of ethics’ (117) – in other words, the Other within. Referring to the work of recent psychoanalytic theorists such as Julia Kristeva, Slavoj Žižek, and Joan Copjec, among others, she argues that the antagonism that Laclau and Mouffe have seen as fundamental to the social (that which prevents society from coming into being) is also evident within the subject. Rather than focusing on psychological modes such as identification, then, Ziarek emphasizes, in line with a variety of recent psychoanalytic theorists, the constitutive role that drive and jouissance play in political movements. Following Kristeva, Ziarek locates jouissance, an enjoyment to which the subject cannot consciously admit, within the abject, ‘one’s own most intimate and yet inassimilable alterity’ (129). In a reading of Kristeva’s work, she argues that nationalism has a libidinal politics; that racism and anti-Semitism are in fact efforts to disown the abject, or to project it onto another, usually a figure like the Jew or, in Fanon, the black man, who enjoys in a manner barred to the racist subject. The traversal of these fantasies of enjoyment becomes an important component of democratic politics, since the return of the abject too often will short-circuit efforts to forge hegemonic coalitions: ‘ . . . the acknowledgement of the internal alterity and antagonism within the subject [is] a condition of responsibility in intersubjective relations’ (127). She therefore mobilizes Joan Copjec’s recent work on sublimation to argue that the traversal of fantasy and the encounter with the abject are in fact politically liberatory practices: through sublimation the subject will be able to disengage from and refuse the narcissistic investments that underwrite racism. What psychoanalysis offers to the ethics of dissensus is both a theoretical discourse and a critical praxis that refuse the disembodied, emotionally purged subject of traditional liberal democracy, as well as the indulgence of the passions associated with fascism (137).

Finally, Ziarek’s last two chapters make the feminist case for a concept (or anti-concept) of sexual difference, despite efforts to replace a supposedly binary model with a notion of gender that is both more phenomenologically fluid as well as more sensitive to socio-historical difference. She therefore turns to a consideration of Luce Irigaray’s work, arguing that the pressure of a sexual difference that cannot be captured by concrete material realities offers utopian possibilities beyond the presence of history. Hence the importance in Irigaray of deploying the imaginary not as the illusory promise of narcissistic wholeness but rather, in line with the ethos of becoming, a ‘disjunctive temporality’ promising new ways of being. In Ziarek’s text, sexual difference thus becomes the primary figure for the failure to consolidate the universal and the particular, or its corollary, a determinant judgment that supports prescriptive normativity. Sexual difference becomes a privileged site for the ‘labor of the negative.’

But Irigaray’s disregard for other forms of difference, especially race, has come under considerable critique, since, even if the ‘woman’ she posits is limited by an inconceivable sexual difference, nevertheless in relation to that limit, racial difference is itself secondary. Ziarek therefore devotes her final chapter to an articulation of racial difference that accompanies her nomination of sexual difference as the primary figure for subjective limits. Ziarek privileges the work of bell hooks, since the latter not only contests postmodern theory’s elision of racial difference, but also black intellectuals’ general neglect of postmodern discourse (184). For Ziarek, hooks forges a rapprochement between a radical democratic politics and notions of community that exemplify being-in-common without eradicating difference; that take solidarity, not identity, as their basis. In addition, hooks articulates as the basis of any such social movement the affective life that progressive politics has ignored, i.e. the importance of rage at social injustice and love, whose transformative possibilities link it to both the ethos of responsibility and the ethos of becoming: ‘In the context of hooks’s discussion of trauma, we could say that white solipsism signifies a refusal to bear witness to the traumatic reality of racial difference. As Levinas reminds us, this refusal is a narcissistic defense against the traumatic experience that the encounter with the suffering of the Other invariably inflicts’ (192; see also 199-200). This final chapter completes the assimilation of Levinas’ efforts to install ethics as first philosophy — i.e. to make responsibility for the Other the groundless ground of subjectivity – in a contemporary American multiculturalist project.

It should be clear from my account of Ziarek’s argument that this is an ambitious, even exhaustive book, astounding in its erudition. Its efforts to discern the two ethical ‘styles’ that have implicitly structured much postmodern theory in order to synthesize a third position that incorporates the best of these projects makes it a valuable contribution to theory’s recent ‘ethical turn.’ But I also find myself ambivalent about the book’s project, since its very erudition limits it to a theoretical discourse that seems driven by synchronic concerns, that finds few material obstacles in its path towards an ethics of dissensus that synthesizes a vast array of contemporary theories. In other words, the book promotes a theoretical discourse that seems too far distanced not only from its own material conditions of possibility but from the very matter or specificity that would trouble its totalizing project.

This might seem surprising, given its persistent engagement with difference and embodiment – but it is the very discourse on embodiment that illustrates my trouble. Despite contemporary developments in whiteness or masculinity studies, race is figured by blackness, sexual difference by femininity, with the result that it becomes the task of women and blacks in this book to bear the weight of embodiment. I do not mean to contest Ziarek’s general effort to reintroduce into political discourse the problem of embodiment, as well as racial and sexual differences. But I do think the manner in which this is done ends up conserving the theoretical priority of whiteness and masculinity; they continue to function as the normative and unmarked ground from which difference as such must be thought. For example, in the book embodiment references both the body of enjoyment as theorized by psychoanalysis, and the politically or socially marked body, the body somehow different from the hegemonic center. But because Ziarek leaves undeveloped how the different modes of embodiment (race and sex) operate via the psychoanalytic body of enjoyment, the racial body tends to be a wounded body, a body formed through the trauma of epidermalization. Meanwhile, it is implied that the body that enjoys is, via the analysis of how Kristevan abjection can generate racism and anti-Semitism, a normatively white body. White bodies remain the site of psychoanalytic enjoyment, while black bodies remain the site of racist trauma. In brief, embodiment is so wide-ranging as to be ill-defined. It is as if ’embodiment’ were doing much more work than referencing enjoyment or race or sex or gender, as if it mediated between a psychoanalytic discourse and a political discourse whose rapprochement still needs to be thought.

Embodiment’s relation to specific modes of difference is also a problem. Like much contemporary postmodern and/or multicultural theory, Ziarek’s book assumes that race and sex operate analogously, despite the fact that such symmetry is a product of discrete political struggles; that ontologically, these identities have quite different, if often intertwined histories; that phenomenologically, as modes of experience as well as of embodiment, they often function differently – not just in terms of content but in their very form. Hence the possibility of referencing these different modes of identity production through generalizations like difference or specificity. Another example of this can be found in the book’s repeated references to ‘race, class, and sex,’ despite the fact that it never actually discusses what impact class differences have or should have on radical democratic politics. Like many academics in the United States, the functional equivalence of different modes of identities ends up supporting the allegorization of class differences through racial and sexual differences, as if the latter could unproblematically stand in for the former. The ethics of dissensus is therefore limited to the politics of recognition; or, via ‘race, class, and sex,’ it vanishes the politics of distribution into the politics of recognition.

I do not mean to condemn Ziarek for ignoring issues of class when discussing embodiment, or for not promoting a historicity that would take inspiration from a Marxist problematic. Class, race, and sex should be analytically distinct, despite Elizabeth Spelman’s insight that we usually do not experience consciously class position as distinct from racial identity, or racial identity as distinct from gender. But the repeated rhetorical citation of ‘race, class, and sex’ does bespeak an indebtedness to a multicultural tradition, the politics of recognition, whose adoption actually weakens the political and ethical force of this book. In essence, the book’s efforts to connect a quasi-transcendental theory to a concrete political program, and then re-articulate that context in the light of a postmodern ethics, commits it to a found discourse, liberal multiculturalism in the United States. Despite Ziarek’s emphasis on the indeterminacy of ethical judgment in Chapter 3, her own ethical judgments are always exercised on behalf of Others already intelligible to academic discourse, and differends whose claims to justice are already known. In brief, the book’s adoption of Levinas and the application of his work to contemporary American multiculturalist concerns mean that the ethics of dissensus has been ‘captured,’ in a sense, by a concrete empirical content, one that inhabits it but is itself never subject to analysis or review. A presumed strength of an ethics that takes contingency seriously would be its questioning of the often inert and institutionalized materialization of the various identities, even of the formations of these identities, while still maintaining as an open question the demand, or the desire, for justice.

In essence, the book’s ‘addition’ of race and sexual difference is belated, its theory never actually speaking to what future forms political action may or should take. It never wrestles with the concrete content that it takes as its referent. The recent example of Trent Lott’s forced resignation as Senate Majority leader indicates that, at the rhetorical level, the meanest of Republicans pay lip service to certain manifestations of the multicultural project. George W. Bush urges respect for Islam, even as he has pursued murderous wars against Islamic nations. In the American southwest, Mexican and South American immigrants, the majority of whom are illegal, pose claims of justice that need to be not merely respected, but articulated materially. For example, talented adolescent students are barred from Colorado colleges and universities because, as non-nationals, they are required to pay out-of-state tuition. In other words, how do we respect Others, how do we implement the Levinasian injunction, given the increasingly restricted material resources necessary to instantiate such respect (or correct for its absence)? What happens when the politics of recognition runs up against a politics of distribution that takes from the poor to give to the rich? This inattention to the material implementation of the Levinasian injunction results, I think, in the latter’s evisceration. As Derrida has written in The Gift of Death,

In order to be responsible it is necessary to respond to or answer to what being responsible means. For if it is true that the concept of responsibility has, in the most reliable continuity of its history, always implied involvement in action, doing, a praxis, a decision that exceeds simple conscience or simple theoretical understanding, it is also true that the same concept requires a decision or responsible action to answer for itself consciously, that is, with knowledge of a thematics of what is done, of what action signifiers, its causes, ends, etc. In debates concerning responsibility one must always take into account this original and irreducible complexity that links theoretical consciousness (which must also be a thetic or thematic consciousness) to ‘practical’ conscience (ethical, legal, political), if only to avoid the arrogance of so many ‘clean consciences. (1995: 25)

In brief, responsibility to the Other requires both a theoretical articulation of that relationship irreducible to any single empirical instance, as well as a refusal of a theoretical elaboration not itself responsible to ‘practical’ instances to which it nevertheless remains heterogeneous.

Derrida’s concern with an ‘original and irreducible complexity’ indicates something of the dangers of any primarily formalist ethical position. Fredric Jameson has suggested that much postmodern thought is subject to what he calls the ‘formalist temptation’:

that determines the strategy of the solution itself, which cannot lie in the area of concrete content – of the historical situation, of the values of concrete groups, of specific choices – and is thereby necessarily transferred to the more logical operation of deducing something that looks like content (a substantive ethics or politics) from specifically formal features of the philosophical concept itself. (Jameson, 1994: 43)

In short, what Jameson notes is that formalist projects like the ethics of dissensus deduce substantive ethical content from what are essentially first principles (like responsibility to and for the Other) that attempt to elude ontology. Jameson therefore resists the colonization of the political by the ethical, as well as a postmodern thought that resolves contradictions (antagonisms located in history, in material conditions) into logical antinomies – in other words, postmodern thought’s return to idealism.

Though I am not in agreement with the implicit suggestion that a Marxist historicity is the ‘solution’ to postmodern idealism, nor that the ‘ethical turn’ is necessarily a retreat from politics, I do think that Jameson describes something of the problem with projects like the ethics of dissensus. However, the problem inheres not within formalism per se, but in the supposition that ethical and political content are interchangeable. I remain impressed by what I would regard as one of the primary strengths of postmodern ethical thought: the recognition that one’s responsibility cannot be plotted according to principles that transcend specific contexts; ethical judgment is not determinant judgment. Taking responsibility, committing oneself not only to a particular ethical judgment but a particular ethical act – such acts always presume a gap between principle as a formalized symbolic system and the literal, even real (in the Lacanian sense) instantiation of principle. It is for this reason that Ronald Beiner and Alessandro Ferrara attempt to ground ethical judgment in reflective, as opposed to determinant, judgment, since the former involves a notion of universality not supported by conceptual thought or systematic theory. Despite the appeal to a revised notion of universality, however, what impact ethical judgment has on the political still remains an open question. The postmodern lesson ofAntigone (a play that has made an appearance in the work of Slavoj Žižek, Joan Copjec, Charles Shepherdson, and Judith Butler) is that any ethical act, even if ‘universal’ (as grounded in an unsymbolizable real or a universal if non-conceptual reflective judgment) cannot be determined a priori by any theoretical claim. Its inscription in the political, the effects it has on political life, will also be belated, retroactive. In other words, an act is never sublimated at the time of its occurrence, which is why truly ethical acts are always a bit obscene, a bit unseemly, especially insofar as they disrupt at least the surface tranquility of any community.

What sublimation points out is that ethical justification is always subject to temporality, to symbolization, to contingency; the question of what one ought to do, even vis-à-vis the Other, is distinct from the question of what impact one’s actions will have on others, on communal or political life. Chantal Mouffe’s work has indicated that it is a real strength of liberal democracies to eschew public, universal knowledge of the Good. However, I think Ziarek is correct to note that the ideal of radical democracy does raise the ongoing, postmodern problem of justification. If the Good has been barred from the democratic imaginary, how then can certain claims, certain demands for justice, be justified? Should they be justified? Whose demands are legitimate? How is legitimacy to be determined if we eschew foundations? If we take postmodern anti-foundationalism and radical democracy seriously, are we really condemned to the peculiar disavowal of making foundational claims while not ‘believing’ them?

In conclusion, Ziarek’s book speaks to the important political and ethical questions that drive the best of postmodern thought. Though its efforts at resolution leave me somewhat dissatisfied, though it relies, in a sense, on the demands of Others whose legitimacy is not fundamentally in question, though it does not articulate adequately the relationship between ethics and politics, nevertheless the book is an important contribution to the ongoing problematic of justification. Finally, within the ethico-political divide opened up by Machiavelli, Ziarek’s book demonstrates that what Jameson had regarded as a formalist failing – the derivation of political or ethical content from philosophical concepts – may in fact not be the voluntarist mistake of a few addled postmodern thinkers, but rather evidence of a persistent modern stain within postmodernity.


1 My use of quotation marks indicates something of the difficulty of writing about an ethics that refuses foundations.


Beiner, R. (1983) Political Judgment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. (1995) The Gift of Death. Trans. David Wills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ferrara, A. (1998) Reflective Authenticity: Rethinking the Project of Modernity. London and New York: Routledge.

Jameson, F. (1994) The Seeds of Time. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mills, C. W. (1997) The Racial Contract. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Pateman, C. (1988). The Sexual Contract. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Spelman, E. (1988) Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Boston: Beacon Press.

White, S. K. (2000) Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tracey Sedinger is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado, US, and Coordinator of the Women’s Studies program. She has published essays in CriticismShakespeare Quarterly, and Cultural Critique, and is currently completing a book entitled Passing Show: Disguise and Representation in Sixteenth-century England.