Reflecting on the normativity debates that have been waging recently, I’ve increasingly found myself thinking of Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing”:

As I try to put my finger on just why transcendentalist positions cause me so much uneasiness (as well as certain ways of modeling truth and inquiry), the association that comes to mind is that of wanting one’s “money for nothing”. To get money, of course, one must work in some way. That is, acquiring money has a thermodynamic dimension that requires work, labor, and friction with a world independent of us. Indeed, this is true even of counterfeit money that requires all sorts of labor to be produced. “Money for nothing” would be the fantasy of a production of value in a frictionless universe that requires no expenditure of energy, nor any engagement with resistance to produce itself.

Perhaps the clearest symptoms that transcendent and transcendentalist accounts of normativity want their money for nothing are to be found in the vigorous defense of the is/ought distinction, the imprisonment of normativity in a transcendental subject completely independent of the body, the world and society, or the imprisonment of norms either in the mind of God or in a Platonic realm of the forms. In all these cases, transcendentalist (Kantian and post-Kantian) and transcendent (Platonic and theistic) construct a theory of normativity that carefully divorces norms from thermodynamic questions of work and labor. By taking the norms out of the world and treating them as non-existent yet nonetheless binding, transcendental approaches carefully separate normativity from the frictions of the world.

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For me this is problematic in two respects. On the one hand, they ignore questions of the genesis of norms or how norms come into existence and are produced. In my view, there are a number of problems with this. In an email discussion surrounding these issues with an old friend, my friend claimed that “women’s emancipation was made possible through norms”. My friend, of course, was implicitly suggesting that because I don’t advocate a transcendental theory of normativity (whether of the Platonic, theistic, or Kantian variety) I am unable to advocate for the equality of men and women.

The problem with my friend’s analysis of just how women’s emancipation took place is that it puts the cart before the horse. That is, it treats norms of equality as the “causal” factor that led to the emancipation of women. Why is this problematic? Well, because, it is thoroughly incapable of answering the question “why now? why under these circumstances? why not at a different point in history?” If we take the various transcendentalist and transcendental philosophers seriously in their claims we 1) are inherently free subjects, and 2) always have access to the moral law available to us. Yet if the moral law is always available, then why does inequality between men and women only become apparent at a particular point in history and in a particular set of geographical regions?

The transcendentalist rightfully wants norms to be binding for all times and places. Their strategy for accomplishing this, however, is incredibly crude. To accomplish this universal bindingness they take something that is a result, product, or entity that had to be constructed (the norm) and project it into a frictionless world (reason, the Platonic realm of true reality, God, etc), so as to establish its existence. In other words, the worry is that if we grant the thesis that norms must be built somehow this annuls or undermines the reality and existence of norms. In my view, something quite different was behind women’s emancipation. While I do not deny that men and women evoked the language of normativity in their political struggles, the grounds that created a social field in which these evocations could resonate as information rather than mere noise had very little to do with normativity.

Rather, the grounds that created a re-structuration in which normative claims of a particular sort could resonate as information or differences capable of making a difference had a lot more to do with women entering the factories during WWII and which new developments pertaining to birth control and so on. These nonhuman actors (factories, the pill, personal finance– women took care of household finances during the war –and so on) created a crack in the organization or structuration of the prior social fabric that allowed for a new set of possibilities for social structuration to become imaginable. Yet this ground in and of itself had nothing to do with normativity. Normative rhetoric accompanying liberation movements two decades later was the icing on the cake of a set of shifts that were largely already accomplished but which remained to be symbolically registered and legally enforced.

If I am so insistent on these points, if I’m so suspicious of political discourses that focus on rule-based normativity, then this is because I believe they lead to bad political strategy. Because one had placed all their eggs in the basket of abstract and formal rules divorced from the world, because they’ve made the gambit of drawing a strong is/ought distinction to protect the universality and bindingness of these rules from a variable world, the political theorist is led to ignore the concrete structuration of situations believing that it is enough to have the “right” normative principles underlying their practice. As a consequence, they’re led to ignore what constraints might organize social situations preventing the sort of desired change, but they’re also led to a certain blindness with respect to those sites where lines of flight are occurring such as the factories of the 30s and 40s with respect to women’s emancipation. If a failure to examine the constraints or structure of a social organization is problematic, then this is because it fails to deliver the empirical knowledge required to locate the weak points in these systems and strategically exploit them to push changes along. If the failure to recognize where the lines of flight are taking place, then its because we miss the opportunity to assist in the intensification of these movements.

By imprisoning norms in the eternity of God, the non-existent world of the Platonic forms, or a transcendental subject we become blind to the world and fail to see the real soil of norms or the ground out of which they grow and are produced. Our heart is in the right place in wanting these new norms to be binding, but in our horror at work and labor, our horror at all that is thermodynamic, we fall into narcissistic self-congratulation where we can content ourselves with having the “right” position (Hegel’s law of the heart in the Phenomenology) without producing any real change in the world.

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