These days I find myself feeling deeply weary where discussions about ethics and politics are concerned. I reflect on this, I wonder why. Why is it that I grow so tired, so jaded, whenever discussions of politics and ethics come up. I’m divided between two tendencies, two orientations. On the one hand, there is my desire for justice, equity, and fairness. On the other hand, there is my Lucretian and Spinozist desire for peace of mind and beautitude. Ethico-politico desire, the first orientation, is a desire to transform the world, to render it just, and to denounce injustice; injustice that we see all about it. The desire for beautitude and peace of mind is something quite different. It is a desire to simply delight in the machines of the world, the beings of the world, taking them for what they are. The person who has what Spinoza called an “intellectual love of God” does not desire to change things, but rather takes delight in understanding what they are. It is a desire without telos, without aim, without purpose, that simply delights in things for their own sake: rigid machines, octopi, tanuki, storms, and shifting tectonic plates. The Spinozist does not wish to change things because she knows that she cannot. She knows that everything that is results from the causes that preceded it and therefore could not be otherwise. She understands that her rancor and despair arises from believing that things could be otherwise than they are, and understands that if she just knew the causes of things she would no longer experience this despair because she would know that things can’t be any different. Consequently, the only thing she wishes to transform is her own psychology, her own mind, so that she might delight in how things are rather than in willing them to be otherwise. I’m too much of a Lucretian– which is to say, I believe too much in freedom and the aleatory –to adopt this sort of Spinozism, but I certainly see the appeal. I do think there’s a wisdom in this Spinozism.
Why this ethico-politico weariness, then? I think maybe because I’m keenly aware of political and ethical psychology. Here the issue is not so much about the correctness of ethical and political positions, but rather in how our ethical and political zeal affectively transforms how we experience ourselves and the world. When I go through periods of ethical and political zeal, I do not like myself or the world. When I encounter people filled with political and ethical passions, I do not like these people. In my normative attunements I become ugly. When my intentionality is primarily structured around ethico-politico considerations, my internal world becomes one filled with rage and despair. Everything appears as if it is falling short, as if it is unjust, as if it is horrible. I develop a mania for judgment and denunciation. Like the man on a personal mission to show that everything we enjoy is bad, I become intoxicated with a hermeneutics of suspicion that finds something in every project, in every form of human relation, in every positive proposal, suspect. It’s as if everything– every love, every formation of a collective, every work of art, every movie, every novel, every scientific discovery comes to be seen as harboring a dirty secret. Everything must be denounced, everything is suspect, everyone is a servant of an ugly ideology. My lived inner face becomes transfigured like the faces in painting to the right above. I become puritanical and filled a self-righteous zeal. I don’t like how I feel in these moments of zeal, nor how I relate to others. I don’t like how I come to see the entire world as broken. I don’t like the others I encounter that seem filled with this zeal, who always seem to accuse you of being guilty, who always seem to ask you for your papers. Here there is a deep performative contradiction in so much critical ethical and political theory. Our aim is to change the world, but we make ourselves so unpleasant, we relate to others with such puritanical intolerance, that we end up driving people away rather than forming collectives. We end up doing more to advance conservative and reactionary causes, rather than advancing emancipatory causes. The best friend of the economic and social conservative is the leftist kill-joy who finds everyone impure and who sees every enjoyment as suspect and worthy of condemnation.
And then, when I reflect on the extent of my own concrete political engagement and that of my more politically inclined academic colleagues, I become cynical. All of these cries for a politics that seem, at best, to be calls to show your papers and, at worst, partially veiled ad hominem attacks accusing simple scholars of being guilty of the worst atrocities rather than businesses, politicians, armies, and industries, seem rather absurd when we notice that these things are presented at expensive conference hotels and written in books and journal articles that no one save another academic can read. One wonders who these things are all for as they never seem to enter the broader social world and it is rare to encounter an academic who has a real political engagement beyond attending the occasional protest or writing the occasional open letter. In these dark and cynical moments, I find myself thinking that politics is what came to fill the void opened by the collapse of theology. Where the humanities used to be organized around theology and knowledge of God and advancement of his glory, the humanities encountered a void in the movement towards secularization. Something was needed to function as a telos or justification of our work. Politics became that replacement. But it’s been a weird sort of politics that is seldom addressed to the broader population and that seldom takes to the streets. I repeat, who is it for? What does it do? It’s as if we can’t admit that we just genuinely love Shakespeare for his own sake.
I suppose what I find most objectionable is the perpetual call for a telos of our work. Work, research, can never be an end in itself, it can never be something valuable for its own sake. We are never given a space for investigation that doesn’t have a utilitarian end. No, we must either be engaging in critique or the art of showing that dirty secrets and motives lie behind something else, or we must show that such and such a thing has revolutionary ethical and political implications. Of course, when we talk about ethical and political implications, we also must take care not to propose any positive projects because then we either reveal ourselves as hopelessly naive (“oh, that will never solve all the problems!”) or are inviting horror as every utopian project, we’re told, necessarily leads to disaster. We’re always, it seems, rushing towards an articulation of what the “cash-value” of x is.
What if, however, this rush to a “cash-value”, to an ethico-politico “moral” of every investigation, of every form of inquiry, isn’t part of the problem? Here my thoughts this evening cannot fail but to be ironic or paradoxical, for I am simultaneously suggesting that we should be reluctant to call for a political and ethical cash-value to everything, while claiming that doing so has political and ethical value. In calling for a political and ethical moral to every investigation, we instrumentalize all things, foreclosing the possibility of letting them be themselves. We turn everything into a means to an end. Yet in transforming everything to a means to an end, we divest it of its own value. As a means to an end it can be dominated and destroyed so long as the end is still fulfilled. Yet isn’t this the ground of violence and exploitation? Moreover, in seeing everything as a means to an end, we undermine our ability to love certain things for their own sake and thereby undermine one of the primary inspirations for fighting for things. Perhaps, given this, we should be a little less rushed to move to politics and ethics. Perhaps letting things be is already an ethics and politics.
Now I realize that there are some that will be constitutively unable to understand this post. They will suggest that I am rejecting politics and ethics, thereby repeating the mania for denouncing dirty secrets that I outline above. My real question, however, is that of how we might avoid this loathsome ethical and political psychology that causes so much destruction, conflict, and horror in the world. If we are to envision a politics, what kind of politics might we imagine based on building rather than critique, and what sort of politics might we imagine based on joy and love rather than resentment, faux superiority, and teeth gnashing? We desperately need critique, but above all we need composition or building.