Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Ethics and Innocence

So, I have some links about my last post on flat ethics: Levi has a response up here, and Peter has an extension here (particularly useful to read in terms of my discussion on innocence), Alex Reid has more thoughts on flat ethics (always worth reading), Jeremy Trombley has more thoughts here (entitled, wonderfully, constructing ethics. Constructivist Ethics has been the recent name I have been giving to my ethical work), Adam Robberts has some thoughts on ethics (similar thread, but not as specific on the issue of flat ethics), also not completely on point but useful is this post by Andre Ling, Craig has a follow up post here (sometimes I think I miss out by not being on twitter, also go read Craig),  Levi has a round up and more ideas here, and lastly Claire O'Farrell has a great little post up on Badiou's Ethics (which also isn't directly related, but I think important to all these present discussions). And I bet while I write this, there will be more posts.
I don't have the time right now to respond to everyone (particularly Levi), but maybe soon. Instead, here is a side discussion about ethics (both flat and otherwise).

This post will still be on my work about ethics, but this is a slightly different route. Karl Steel (whose book, How to Make a Human is really quite wonderful, hopefully more on that later) recently brought me up over at the blog In the Middle. Karl writes:
For some recent discussions of posthuman ethics, relevant to my post, see Levi Bryant and Scu at Critical Animal. I think Scu gets it exactly right when he says "Ethics is not a pathway for innocence. Rather, it is about how to live after innocence, how to exist in a fully post-lapsarian world." I think that "Bisclavret" might answer Levi's statement that he's "not even sure what a non-anthropocentric ethical theory would look like." Well, here's one, and it's lycanthropocentric. It's not a flat ontology (edit of the edit: or rather, not a flat ethics), because--as Bogost reminds us--there's no escaping -centrism, of whatever sort. But to eat from the perspective of the wolf (as I suggest the Wolf-Child of Hesse does) or the werewolf (as Mr. B does), is certainly to be non-anthropocentric. Edit of the edit: although I may be speaking far above my pay grade, and certainly far outside my expertise, while we might be able to conceive of a flat ontology, I'm not sure we, or anything else, can conceive of a flat ethics. 

Read the rest of his post to get how all of this fits together, it will be worth your time. Okay, well, Eileen Joy (whose energy and scholarship has always been impressive for me to behold from a distance) had this to say in comments:

5. I couldn't disagree more with this comment from Scu:
"Ethics is not a pathway for innocence. Rather, it is about how to live after innocence, how to exist in a fully post-lapsarian world."
Any notion of the world [human, inhuman, whatever], as one that is always somehow post-good faith, innocence, etc. just unwittingly participates in what I feel is a kind of Judeo-Christian tragic view of the world. I know [esp. after reading your AVMEO essay] that we need *more* bad conscience [we need to be more hyper-aware of all the ways in which *our* violence has shaped this world], but that is not the same thing as saying this world is always post-lapsarian, always post-evil [as it were], as if the "starting position" for every inquiry, or formulation of ethics, is that there could never be an example, an ontology, of non-violence. At least, I'd like to think "bad conscience" and also goodness outside of religious contexts.

Okay, I was actually both surprised and, well, intellectually provoked by this comment. So, I want to spend some time with it. I had talked to Cameron about this, and he basically said something like, "Well, that's just true". To which I said, "Well, it's not untrue, and I think that is my cue to write a blog post". Which is where we are.

So, first, when I start using phrases like post-lapsarian, I can't really come back and go, "Of course I am not part of the Judeo-Christian tradition", if nothing else my language and images are certainly tied to a Western and Judeo-Christian world I was brought up in. So, I would certainly reject (parts?) of such a tradition. I certainly don't want to trap our ethics back into a religious contexts.

And it is worth noting here how much innocence is so thoroughly criss-crossed by the same religious tradition. To give you merely a very recent example, here is an excerpt from the Christian Medical Fellowship blog (h/t JME blog):
From a post entitled "There are few things more horrifying than the slaughter of innocent children", worried already?
Every child’s death is a tragedy but there are few things more reprehensible than the killing of children by adults. Children are rightly seen as amongst the most vulnerable and defenceless members of society and deserving of special protection. [...]
There is no one more vulnerable, more innocent and being killed in greater numbers than the unborn child. Each year around the world there are 42 million abortions, against only 57 million deaths from all other causes except abortion.

Innocence isn't exactly a concept outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it certainly doesn't maintain itself, well, innocently.

(Side note, I am going to switch to talking about the particular manifestation of the Judeo-Christian tradition I am most familiar with--the conservative evangelical Christianity, as most represented in the American Southeast).

The fallenness of the world in such a Christian tradition is tied completely up with innocence. It isn't like the entire tradition goes: "Well, the world is fallen, time to move on with figuring out how to live". Instead, the entire point is to return to innocence, or moments of innocent, or support and propagate innocence. Thus, we have confessions, we have penance, we have conversions and born agains, we have the idea of rapture, faith to absolve us of sin, etc.
I am just not entirely sure why critiquing the notion of innocence unwittingly perpetuates such a tradition. This is why in my provocations, right before the line that Karl quotes, I write: "Ethics is not secularized redemption, or a manuel for right and righteous living."

I do agree with Eileen's point that such a conception of ethics requires us to take seriously the idea that non-violence might never be an option. I don't think I want to take quite the maximal stance here that there can never be, and never will be, the possibility of non-violence, but I freely admit to not seeing that possibility. And if it is possible, truly and really to live a life of non-violence, I don't think we need something called "ethics". Rather, ethics is all about choices and decisions, it is about producing certain kinds of realities and beings to the exclusion of other realities and beings (this is what makes it tragic). And that is what I mean by violence, the forceful exclusion of some worlds for other worlds. At times this is profoundly and obviously something we can call violence: you have one liver to transplant, and three patients who need it. You experiment on beings for medical treatment, or you don't.  You choose between development and increased standard of living in your country, or decreasing global warming gasses. If what various people with regards to plants are saying is true (and I am increasingly convinced, due mostly to Steven Shaviro), when we eat plants, other animals, or fellow humans (and yes, I am thinking of both Matt Calarco here, and Karl Steel on cannibalism) we are participating in an economy of lives living and dying. These are, as William James puts it, "a tragic situation and no mere speculative conundrum" (The Will to Believe, p. 203). Tim Morton likes to talk about the sense of unease we get when we really think about the ways we all connected. Rather than some hippie or new age sense of celebration, it is scary. It is scary to think about the mercury in our bodies, and the ways that global warming will effect us. Also, from an ethical point of view, it is unnerving to think about the ways we are ecologically and economically connected. We are constantly working on producing one world (or one set of worlds, or a series of particular worlds, or the possibilities for only these worlds and not those worlds), as opposed to other worlds.Further, as James also argues, "Decisions [... are a] strange and intense function of granting consent to one possibility and withholding it from another, to transform an equivocal and double future into an inalterable and simple past (The Will to Believe, p. 158).  This is tragic, this closing off of possible futures into inalterable pasts. But this isn't a move to ask us to repent for our sins, or ask for forgiveness, or pine after a future where tragedy will not exist. There is no thought here of leaving or precarity, or our finitude. This is not a world view that this world is tragically fallen, so we have to leave it, or earn and focus on an (imaginary) time when we will no longer be a part of this world, but immortally otherwise. Instead, the ethical energy is one of constructivism, of constantly building and rebuilding the world. Ethics is a way of putting ourselves into this world, rather than taking us out of this world.

This brings us back to innocence, and also more that I agree with Eileen. I really think there is a bizarre kind of allergy to ethics among certain people, or at least certain issues. For many, it seems to be hung up on a kind of innocence. Agamben and Esposito seem to condemn every complex ethical choice as being the return of nazism. Every time there is some proposition that the complexity of plants is somehow a unique ethical challenge for vegetarians and vegans, innocence is at fault there. I could go on, but much of this also very much in line with what Tim, following Hegel, calls the beautiful soul syndrome. However, I certainly can understand Eileen's recoiling of my attacks on innocence, and her fear that I am somehow claiming we are post-evil (I am not trying to claim that). My focus against innocence, and for ethics, is not a cure all. Just like Deleuze and Guattari warning us to "[n]ever believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us", never believe that critiquing innocence will suffice to give us ethical thinking. Right, I think there is a lot of reason to focus our attacks on BSS and innocence, but there are also surely dangers and failure on that road as well.  I wrote this back in September:

However, being critical of being a beautiful soul is often what someone does right before they, you know, say or do something horribly violent and messed up. Zizek's frankly racist remarks about the Roma is a good example. But this also happens all the time in discussions of vegans and vegetarians. When someone critiques vegans and vegetarians of engaging in beautiful soul syndrome, of just desiring to be pure (like Pollan often does), they almost always are saying their willingness to accept the world as a violent place means they can now slaughter and eat the flesh of animals.
In other words, we cannot have a critique of the beautiful soul leading us into a worse world. This sort of political and ethical 'realism' cannot be an excuse for racism and needless violence. Deleuze was often fond of saying that doing philosophy required a sort of stutter or a sort of stammer. A way of making language do something it wasn't really designed to do. I often think that political and ethical action requires a type of shambling, a type of shuffling. A way of walking that both rejects the beautiful soul while at the same time not allowing that to become an excuse for us to not have ethical commitments.