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editorial Arrow vol 3 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 number 1, 2004



Unassumable Responsibility:
New Perspectives on Freedom,
Justice and Obligation

Catherine Mills & Fiona Jenkins
University of New South Wales/Australian National University


Ethics, politics and religion have been able to define themselves only by
seizing terrain from juridical responsibility – not in order to assume another kind
of responsibility, but to articulate zones of non-responsibility. This does not, of course,
mean impunity. Rather, it signifies – at least for ethics – a confrontation with a
responsibility that is infinitely greater than any we could ever assume. At the
most, we can be faithful to it, that is, assert its unassumability.

Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz

1. In the past several decades, a number of contemporary philosophers and political thinkers have raised fundamental questions about the concept of responsibility, to suggest that responsibility is ultimately unassumable. In broad terms, this means that responsibility is not sought in terms of the attribution of causality and guilt to a singular agent for their acts or failure to act. Rather, the notion of an unassumable responsibility demands that responsibility be thought apart from the attribution of causality and guilt, apart from the ready identification of an agent, to recognize that responsibility both exceeds and precedes the individual subject.

2. Hence, the idea of unassumability in responsibility takes up the problem of responsibility ‘after the subject’. Given the critique of the subject that has taken centre stage in European philosophy throughout the twentieth century (at least), questions of responsibility must be grappled with in the absence of a readily identifiable acting subject. Rather than attributing responsibility on the identification and formalisation of relations of agency and causation, the notion of unassumability opens the question of responsibility to a broader concern with the obligation that all subjects bear in relation, in their being in the world with others. As such, responsibility may be taken as the ethico-ontological condition of appearance in the world with others, rather than as the end effect of the confluence of intentionality, causation, harm and guilt.

3. These theorizations and conditions provoke key questions about responsibility. Who is to be held responsible if not the subject? What does responsibility mean in relation to the event? Who decides and what, ultimately, is the nature of the decision? What is the relation of ethics and politics? Can one speak of collective responsibility without determining the collective in such a way that collectivity is metaphorically construed on the figure of the subject? Can responsibility be thought apart from the relation of sponsor that underpins legal culpability? Indeed, can responsibility be thought apart from the law?

4. Addressing these questions through the theme of unassumable responsibility promises to yield a conception of responsibility irreducible to the determination of individual or legal culpability. As such, it may enlighten considerations of historical responsibility, the ethical responsibilities of a people, and responsibilities that obtain in conditions of economic and political globalization. Furthermore, as legal institutions struggle to deal with moral questions raised by bio-technology and with definitions of life and death and of the human, the theme of unassumable responsibility – responsibility after the subject – may provide new ways of thinking about life, embodiment and obligation.

5. However, to raise fundamental questions about the character of responsibility has also been thought by some to be risky to legal institutions and to the strength of moral claims. If one no longer speaks of intentionality or autonomy, of rules and their infraction, of rights and duties, then is not responsibility simply destroyed altogether? Can these terms be turned to new meanings without occluding all that is valuable in the concept of responsibility? Can the concept of responsibility be thought beyond this apparent impasse, to provoke, perhaps, a responsibility ‘before the law’?

6. The essays in this issue address the possibility of a responsibility before, or indeed, beyond the law, through varying philosophical approaches – Levinas, Girard, Derrida, Arendt, Deleuze, Agamben, Ricouer - and contemporary phenomena, from new reproductive technologies through to the terrorist attacks of September 11. All of the selected papers were initially presented at a conference on the theme of 'Unassumable Responsibility' in September 2003, at the Australian National University. Sponsored by the National Institute for the Humanities, the conference sought to provide an interdisciplinary forum for considerations of the questions and problems indicated above. It included speakers from the disciplines of Philosophy, Political Science, Cultural Studies, English, and Law amongst others. The papers collected here have been extended in response to referee’s comments from their original presentation as conference papers. However, we have also sought to retain the moment of the conference in the process of transformation.

7. The diversity of perspectives taken toward the notion of an unassumable responsibility is reflected in the papers collected here. An especially strong thematic within the conference presentations and ensuing discussions was that of responsibility and political violence, a theme addressed by several papers within this collection. In her provocative analysis of the aftermath of terror post-September 11, Rosalyn Diprose uses Nietzsche’s characterisation of the sovereign subject and Levinas’s conception of ethical obligation to argue for ‘a more responsible democratic politics than we currently have as an antidote to the disabling of the future that characterises terror’. Of the particular responsibility of governments, especially as evinced in their response to 9/11, Diprose claims that these contribute to terror rather than oppose it, since they generate an ‘auto-immunitary’ implosion. However, rather than simply mounting a Derridean critique of governmental responses through the concept of auto-immunity, Diprose attends most closely to a personal responsibility that involves the open-ness of bodies to a future and to sense-making in community with others.

8. Fiona Jenkins also argues for a reconsideration of the responses that were possible to the violence of 9/11, with the particular aim of destabilizing the strong distinction between good and evil that has marked official and state responses so far. Beginning by exploring the claim made by many at the time that the attack against the US amounted to a violence incommensurable with any other, Jenkins questions the terms of this apparent asymmetry of victimhood, which also finds resonance in the asymmetrical authority of some and not others to perpetrate violence. She takes up the distinction made by René Girard between sacrificial victimage and juridical responsibility to ask whether it was in fact possible for the United States, as the injured party, to follow a strictly juridical response to an attack upon it. In conclusion, she proposes an alternative response based upon Jacques Derrida’s reflections on forgiveness without a correlative claim to sovereignty.

9. While Diprose and Jenkins thus affirm the possibility of a responsibility beyond the law, two other authors argue for the necessity of maintaining juridical categories, and especially the categories of human rights, in confronting political violence. Thus, Jean-Philippe Deranty considers Giorgio Agamben’s challenge to the normative theories of Jurgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, which is expressed most clearly in his controversial rejection of the concept of human rights. Undertaking a detailed analysis of the political and philosophical theses developed by Agamben, especially in Homo Sacer, Deranty agrees that it is necessary to heed his warning to ‘question the normativity of modernity after Auschwitz’. Nevertheless, a full rejection of the language of rights comes at the expense of understanding the importance of past future struggles, for as Honneth reminds us, ‘struggles for political and social emancipation have always privileged the language of rights’ (11). Working between the options of normative theory and an Agambenian rejection of rights and normativity, Deranty concludes with a sketch of an affirmative political agonism, based on the recognition that ‘politics is only the name of the contingency that strikes at the heart of systemic necessity’ (50).

10. Frances Daly’s discussion is also critical of Agamben’s treatment of rights and law and finds little in his body of work that could contribute to much needed political transformations today. She argues that although Agamben’s identification of the refugee as a key political figure for our times is insightful, his broad critique of the mutual implication of human rights and biopolitics remains ‘oddly ineffectual’ and indeed risks further victimizing refugees by making them representative of a suffering allegedly experienced by us all. In Agamben’s framework the interpretation of rights becomes reduced to a function of ‘absolute politics’ and a ‘leviathan state’, ignoring the potential rights bear to carry forward our responsibility to ideals of dignity, equality and freedom.

11. Taking a historically responsive approach, Andrew Schaap critically interrogates Agamben’s conception of an unassumable responsibility in relation to debates on reconciliation. Against Agamben, Schaap argues that what is necessary in reconciliation is not a conception of responsibility as unassumable, but a recognition of the necessity of accepting responsibility in an unassuming way. He points to the importance of understanding reconciliation politically, which means that reconciliation should not ‘take for granted a social harmony to be restored or a reciprocity of interests to be secured’ (11). Instead, reconciliation requires ‘a sense of the fragility and contingency of the reconciled community’, brought about through an open-ended, agonistic process of political engagement, rather than through any kind of 'settling of accounts'.

12. Also addressing the inter-relation of history and responsibility, Ann Murphy discusses the political and ethical importance of shame. She seeks to resuscitate a sense of shame in thinking about historical responsibility, particularly through reference to Levinas’s formulation of shame as ‘guiltless responsibility’. Murphy shows that Levinas’s conception of shame leads to a formulation wherein responsibility exceeds even the finitude that history would give it. This does not, however, lead to an exoneration or denial of complicity in past wrongs; instead it shows that ‘the problem is not that we cannot be responsible for history, but rather that we cannot be responsible enough’ (24).

13. Paul Miller turns Levinas to a practical concern with the ‘Children Overboard’ affair that took place in Australia in 2001, just prior to national elections in which the conservative Howard government was returned in a campaign that many have seen as driven by a politics of fear. Addressing the problem of lying in politics, Miller argues against a ‘sovereign’ formulation of responsibility in relation to political lies, wherein the lie is attributed to a speaker then held responsible for it. This, he suggests, actually entails an act of violence insofar as it obfuscates and avoids the greater responsibility at stake in the constitution of political community and correlative issues of exclusion and ‘hospitality’. He argues that while a Levinasian conception of unassumable responsibility cannot give us a prescriptive ethics, it can nevertheless help in re-orienting our response ‘away from ourselves as egoistic sovereign subjects and towards the Other’ (48).

14. In his analysis of Agamben and Debord, William McClure discusses the difficult task of producing ‘situations’ that expose the conditions of the absolute spectacle that reigns today. As a participant in and creator of various events inspired by situationism, McClure elaborates on the way in which such situations may undermine the identity of the subject based on individual or ‘sovereign’ will, particularly through the practices of dérive and détournement. Drawing on Agamben, McClure argues that the dériviste ‘would fulfil the messianic task in an act of accomplished nihilism wherein he or she would summon all her or his potential not to be, constructing the situation on [the] point of indifference between potentiality and impotentiality’ (25). In this way, then, the dériviste is cast as a figure of political futurity, in whom the ‘poetic reception of being’ (31) is operationalized as a counterforce to the deadening weight of the bourgeois market-driven spectacle.

15. Both Robyn Ferrell and Jack Reynolds are also concerned with the importance of ethical and political futures in their contributions. Ferrell takes up these questions through a reflection on the implications of new reproductive technologies that challenge our distinctions between the natural and technological. She argues that ‘eugenics’ is a logical extension of reproductive technologies insofar as they aim to ‘reproduce a social world by producing subjects in its own image’ (42). As such, eugenic reproduction amounts to an attempt to ‘capture the future’, though it is an attempt that necessarily fails since ‘the future is by definition beyond our reach, as that which is yet to be determined’ (42). In a sense, then, the future presents us with a responsibility beyond what we could take on as our own, since it exceeds the circumstances over which we may be said to have control.

16. Reynolds helpfully explores differences and affinities between the evocations of futural dimensions of time that we find in the work of Derrida and Deleuze. Both accord a central ethico-political impetus to the interruption of temporal order that opens onto the future, Derrida speaking here of messianicity and the ‘to come’ which structures his account of democracy and friendship, and Deleuze imaging a futural experience of time from which subjectivity is radically absent. Reynolds connects the crucial difference between imagining futurity as a disruption in the metaphysics of presence that would open subjectivity to alterity (Derrida) and imagining it as the experience of pure difference (Deleuze) to the contrasting politics of resistance and of political radicalism that we find in these thinkers.

17. Paula Keating’s discussion elaborates one aspect of Derrida’s politics of resistance through an exploration of his thought on hospitality. This couples the ‘conditioned’ laws of hospitality proper to politics with the ‘unconditional’ ethical claim of hospitality. In such a thought of the unconditioned there is clearly a reference to Kant’s formulation of the moral law; yet if for Kant ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, for Derrida the unconditional ethical claim proposes that ‘it is necessary to do the impossible’. Here Keating demonstrates the relation between Kant’s ‘assumable’ responsibility as orientation towards action and Derrida’s ‘unassumable’ responsibility which is no less practical, but insists upon a relation between the possible and the impossible that is at once nurturing and corrupting. Derrida here goes further than Kant in making clear that when we act morally, we do so beyond the possibility of calculating consequences, so that our decisions and responsibilities belong to the time of risk and the act of faith.

18. Also working with the differentiation of infinite and calculable responsibility, Stan van Hooft discusses a key distinction in Paul Ricoeur’s work between the juridical notion of responsibility and the kind of responsibility that is tied to ethical identity. In the latter case, a responsibility ‘beyond the law’ is theorized as a response which, on one side, is delimited by our ‘finite capability and our finite knowledge’ but is, on the other side, infinite and limitless - ‘the dialectical product of the global call of innumerable others which comes to us from the future’ (23). Van Hooft shows how Ricoeur’s treatment of ethical responsibility can help us to understand that responsibility is concerned not only with what I can do (or be held culpable for on the basis of capacity) but also with whatever or whoever is precious or vulnerable and thus makes a claim upon me (sometimes, perhaps, exceeding my capacity). A further question then arises as to how far I may be held responsible for my own incapacities, as Aristotle held we may be responsible for our ignorance. Van Hooft explores the applicability of the claim that we can, in a meaningful way, be considered ethically responsible for our ignorance and its harmful consequences in the context of the tragedy of the ‘Stolen Generations’. Accepting responsibility for what happened here would, on this account, be a way of attesting to an ethical identity and of concerning ourselves with the demands and reasons of virtue.

19. Finally, Stephen Muecke takes an ethnological approach to the question of responsibility, in his discussion of sex tourism in Madagascar. Muecke approaches the distinction between different forms of responsibility – which he couches in the terms of moral versus ethical responsibility – through a radical anthropology of contingency. He argues against a theological conception of law and morality, to re-affirm the necessity of an autonomous and non-moral conception of law and an ethical responsiveness based on contingent decisions made in situ. In doing so, he draws upon the methodological resources of ficto-criticism to foreground contingency as both the guiding concept of ethnological research and the foundation for a new elaboration of ethical responsibility over and against transcendental moralism.

20. In a brief response to Muecke, Catherine Mills raises critical questions about the valorisation of the law that she finds in his argument. While agreeing with the claim that a viable conception of law and ethics should be non-theological in its foundation, Mills argues that recourse to the affirmation of a ‘morally neutral’ law avoids the question of nihilism so provocatively taken up by Agamben and others. Instead of these symmetrically opposed options, she suggests instead that more might be done in elaborating an ethics of contingency over and against recourse to a naïve conception of the procedural rule of law as the non-moral arbiter of political and moral conflicts.

21. The conflict over the status of the law that takes centre-stage in the exchange between Muecke and Mills, and which is also key to a number of other papers, indicates the stakes of reconceptualising responsibility in the early days of the 21st century, when wars are being fought with the explicit aim of extending liberal democracy, including the procedural rule of law, in regions where it is not evidently autochthonous. That these critical questions can be asked of the law in liberal democracies surely indicates one the greatest virtues of this political system. That they must be asked indicates one of its weaknesses. Whatever the case, what all the papers in this volume make evident - as did many discussions at the conference from which they have developed - is that thinking through responsibility, in terms of both the juridical and ethical claims made upon us, ought to be one of the key tasks of our intellectual times.

Catherine Mills is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of New South Wales. She specializes in Ethics, Feminist theory and contemporary European Political Philosophy. Email:

Fiona Jenkins is a lecturer in Philosophy at the School of Humanities, Australian National University, teaching on subjects in contemporary French philosophy, on Nietzsche, on film, and on radical aspects of democratic theory. Email:

© borderlands e-journal 2004


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