Thursday, June 7, 2012

Some thoughts on flat ethics

First, and very much a part of this discussion, Gary Francione and Michael Marder have a three part debate about plants, veganism, and ethics over at the CUP blog. Preview here, and the debate is here, here, and here. New territory isn't exactly broken in these debates, but it well articulated and positioned, and hopefully I will have more to say later. And it really has a lot to do with flat ethics, which is the point of today's post.

I am not sure, but I think I might have been the first person to use the term flat ethics in some early discussions with Levi (at least in the context of a flat ontology), so it is interesting to see Levi talking about a flat ethics. Which you can see here (and I will claim to have skimmed some of the comments, so if I retread ground, sorry. Though there are some good comments up, by people like Jairus Grove, Thomas Hodgman, Karl Steel, Ian Bogost, and of course, Craig, among others). Craig, at his new digs, also has a very critical response up. Alright, this is mostly going to focus on Levi's post, and generally some thoughts on ethics I have been expounding here and elsewhere.

When I first started talking about flat ethics, it was as a position I was very much for. An anti-anthropocentric and anti-hierarchical ethics. I am no longer sure a flat ethics is possible, but I still very much remember I wanted a flat ethics. I think all of us need to wary of any sort of ethics that engages in easy hierarchy. And I am not even sure it requires so much of a defense, but anything that allows you to add up and calculate the worthiness of life should give us pause, no? It seems absolutely weird to me that flat ethics is seen as a threat, or a harm, or an evil. Flat ethics is the dream, the hope, the promise. But I worry that the only way to achieve flat ethics is to create categories that exclude, fully and fundamentally, types and modes of existence. This is, of course, something that travels along with Matt Calarco's agnosticism and indetermination, and Haraway's thou shalt not make killable (and the Haraway inclusion here should also keep us present to the fears of why we would want and strive after a flat ethics. Her entire justification for killings of the, say, 'invasive' pig is a great example here of why hierarchies are always so suspicious and pernicious. More on this later).
We should turn our attention here to William James, who writes in his Moral Philosopher and Moral Life:
If we follow the ideal which is conventionally highest, the others which we butcher either die or do not return to haunt us; of if they come back and accuse us of murder, everyone applauds us for turning to them a deaf ear (p. 203)
This is why I have insisted that innocence is not the point of ethics. Indeed, innocence (more than evil) is the enemy of ethics, is the enemy of both thinking and performing ethically. Innocence precludes and occludes ethics.

As Isabelle Stengers movingly writes about James' passage:
James thus seems to condemn moral philosophers to relativism, to the admission that all moral ideals are of equal value. Yet this is not so, and the position James proposes, like those of the evolutionary biologists in the sense of Stuart Kauffman, and like those of the sociologist in the Whiteheadian sense, demands an attention to the interstices. For James, the his first means to accept that the question is tragic. Philosophers should be able to resist the temptation to justify the sacrifice, the exclusion of other ideals. They should accept that the victims haunt the interstices of their adherence to an ideal. They should accept to let their experience throb with the complaint of those who were sacrificed in the name of what they define as moral (Thinking with Whitehead, p. 334). 

This sense of the tragic nature of ethical is so far removed from a Spinozian conatus. Hasana Sharp, in the midst of her critique of Butler's Hegelian ethics of recognition (which is smart, and deserves serious attention), writes: "Moreover, by insisting on the impossibility of the Hegelian project, she resigns herself to a melancholy project of perpetual dissatisfaction" (Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization, p. 152). However, a melancholy project of perpetual dissatisfaction might very well be the mood and mode of the ethical. (This might have something fundamentally to do with what Jack Halberstam calls the queer art of failure, but there are reasons I hesitate here, and decide to make this a parenthetical argument). But let me put an ellipses here on the tragic and the ethical, and instead move on to the issue of the conatus.

I worry about the move toward the conatus when talking about ethics, particularly as it relates to decisions of hierarchy and putting the human first (see both Levi's post and some comments, but also Jane Bennett's otherwise impressive Vibrant Matter, specifically p. 104). There seems to be a great deal of passivity when talking about conatus, as if we are forced to simply want to promote bodies that are the most like ours. And yet, this seems strange. Not only do many people support and sustain bodies that very dissimilar to their own, but Spinoza is deeply suspicious  of this being the case. On the first part, not only do people cherish and love their pets, instead of, say, giving that money to OxFam International (more on this, see Kennan Ferguson's article "I <3 My Dog"), but also people care for all sorts of non-living beings. Think of the people who spend money and energy on old cars, or atari systems, or the various other objects and things that attract our money and attention. These pleasures come from combining our bodies with bodies that are very dissimilar to our own (dogs, video games, cars, artworks, books, what have you). But Spinoza himself assumes that we get caught and captured in the affects of non-human others (particularly animals). Thus, when Spinoza retells The Fall in his Ethics, our downfall is other animals: "but that after he ["the first man"] believed the lower animals to be like himself, he immediately began to imitate their affects (see IIIP27) and to lose his freedom" (found in IVP68S). What a strange retelling of the fall! Hasana Sharp provocatively and thoroughly charts why Spinoza was so suspicious of humans engaging with animals in her book, but also in her JCAS article (here, which is free, but also a large-ish pdf download). But for me, the passivity with which people talk about conatus is worrisome, and it is worrisome exactly for the ethical reasons.For William James the ethical act has no meaning unless it is chosen out “of several, all equally possible” acts. Ethics “must sustain the arguments for the good course and keep them ever before us, to stifle our longing for more flowery ways, to keep the foot unflinching on the arduous path, these are the common ethical energies. The ethical energy par excellence has to go even further and choose which interest, out of several equally coercive, shall be supreme” (Principles of Psychology, p. 191).  The ethical energy involves choice, not passivity.
Indeed, the very idea that desire is something that we have little control over is deeply dangerous and weird. Any decent flipping through the feminist literature on pornography and desire will surely make this case. We can engage in pathways and protocols that forms and transforms our desires and beings, that forms and transforms our conatus. This is not to say, in some sort of self-help way, that we have supreme control over our desires, but neither are we passive receptacles unable to change or engage our desires and bodies. This is one of the reasons that Foucault's late work on the art of living is so interesting and useful, as a way of learning practices and possibilities of change and relation. Indeed, I have suggested (or will. The length from writing to publication creates bizarre time travel paradoxes), that veganism is such a practice, a mode of changing our desires and relations.
And this matters, for the reasons that James goes on to suggest, “The problem with the man is not what act he shall choose to do, than what being he shall now resolve to become" (ibid).