June 2011


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As Mel and I explore the space of eudaimonistic ethical models, one of the issues she keeps bringing up is that they risk bringing about a bad sort of relativism. This worry seems to arise from loose talk about flourishing or connotations that might accompany the term “flourishing”. Along these lines, Mel has brought up three examples of bad “flourishing” to underline these worries: The pedophile, the methamphetamine user, and the petite bourgeois. In each case, the question is something like “what if one’s ‘flourishing’ requires x (the molestation of children, the use of methamphetamines, or the exploitation of workers so as to produce cheap goods) so as to ‘flourish’.” In other words, under this model, flourishing is equated with whatever we happen to like, such that the good is treated as equivalent to what we like.

In my view, the fact that one is immediately led to these sorts of thoughts whenever encountering eudaimonistic models of ethics is a testament to just how impoverished our thought on virtue or the good life has become. Yet virtues and “what we like” are not necessarily identical to one another. As Ronald Sandler puts it in his excellent Character and Environment: A Virtue-Oriented Approach to Environmental Ethics (thank you, Jeremy!),

A character trait is a virtue to the extent that it is conducive to promoting eudaimonistic and noneudaimonistic ends grounded in agent-relative and agent-independent goods and values.

Eudaimonistic ends are agent-relative goods and values that promote the goods and values (flourishing) of the agent in question. Ample sunshine and water is an example of eudaimonistic end for many plants in that such water and sunlight promote the flourishing growth and health of the plant. Non-eudaimonistic ends would be goods and values that are virtues but which don’t necessarily contribute to the flourishing of the being that values them. For example, a person might value the continued woodland existing of spotted owls, even though spotted owls don’t necessarily promote their flourishing in any particular way and despite the fact that promoting that existence even limits their ability to log a particular forest where these owls live. In other words, we can value things that don’t contribute to our own flourishing.

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My thoughts are still under development here so hopefully readers will be kind, but for some time now I’ve found myself deeply attracted to eudaimonistic models of ethical thought. Eudaimonistic ethical thought asks the question “what is the good life?” It is focused on questions of what a life characterized by flourishing would be. Thus, where nomological/juridical models of normativity are primarily concerned with determining whether actions are right or wrong, eudaimonistic normative models are interested in questions of ultimate values and how those values might be actualized or produced. I’ll have more to say about this in a moment, but it’s important to note that for eudaimonistic models of normativity, the question is not one of rejecting rules governing or regulating action, but rather a question of priorities. Where nomological/juridical models of normativity treat questions of normativity as exclusively exhausted by an examination of rules governing right and wrong action– leaving aside the question of whether or not these rules promote and further flourishing –for eudaimonistic models rules 1) are subordinate to fundamental values pertaining to flourishing, 2) therefore follow from these fundamental values, and 3) are therefore rules of thumb rather than absolutes.

It is likely that the seeds of nomological/juridical models of normativity began with the rise of Christianity during the middle ages. Where the ethical question of Greco-Roman antiquity had been “what is the good life?”, this question was largely foreclosed within the framework of Christianity insofar as 1) this world came to be seen as fallen, sinful, and futile, and 2) the overarching aim became one of salvation in the next life. Within this framework, situating ethical questions within the framework of questions of the good life amounted to a rejection of Christian doctrine and metaphysics. To raise such questions would amount to rejecting the thesis that the world is fallen and that salvation is to be sought not in this life but the next. Accordingly questions of ethics shifted from questions of the good life to questions of how to evaluate right and wrong action according to divine Law. What mattered was whether or not action accorded with this law, whatever it might be, and not whether or not action in according with that law produced or was conducive to the good life. We see vestiges of this today in Christian variants of homosexual reparative therapy. Even if the therapy tends to generate severe psychological maladies in the form of massive depression and and suicidal thoughts, it will be seen as a success if it shifts the person from homosexual behavior to heterosexual behavior. The quality of life is secondary to obedience to the law. The function of the law is not to promote flourishing, but rather is absolute and commanded by God.

With this shift we also get a shift to a new conception of both autonomy and the body. Setting aside the strange case of Plato, in antiquity the issue was not so much one of eradicating the body, of denigrating the body, as one of how to best live and satisfy one’s passions. Our passions, when left unformed or uncultivated, can generate massive suffering as in the case of the junkie that is a slave of his passions. Yet a life without the passions would be empty and would generate great suffering as well. The question is thus one of how to rationally satisfy our passions and drives without becoming slaves. In this regard, the body is a central theme of eudaimonistic ethical systems. We need to know something of the body, of its affects, of how it functions to answer questions about flourishing. Accordingly, we get a much broader conception of autonomy or freedom. Autonomy will not simply consist of being self-directing beings independent of all circumstance, but will involve questions of our relationship to our body, the social world in which we exist, our relation to our environment, etc. Epicurus’s Garden, for example, is not merely a historical curiosity with respect to his personal biography, secondary to the proper content of his ethical doctrine. Rather, the Garden, a place where like-minded individuals devoted to the Epicurean way of life live together, was a vital component of their autonomy insofar as control over their social life and environment was necessary to achieving the form of flourishing they sought. The Garden was a part of their autonomy.

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Opening Jun and Smith’s Deleuze and Ethics, I’m confronted with Jeffrey Bell’s article “Whistle While You Work: Deleuze and the Spirit of Capitalism”. Bell nails it right in his opening paragraphs:

In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 Marx pointedly argues that within the capitalist system “the worker is related to the product of his labor as to an alien object. As Marx contends, and as is well known, it is precisely the power of labor that has become “congealed in an object,” that is, in a commodity (or service) that exists independently and “becomes a power on its own confronting him.” In short, the life which the power of labor has conferred on “the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.” Our work has become a foe, a test and trial we must endure before we can begin to do what we really want to do. Work or play, as Deleuze and Guattari note, has become one of the great molar segments that divides us, an exclusive disjunction that pervades daily life. There is the melancholy of the Monday morning blues; there is the hope that emerges as Wednesday, hump day, draws to a close and there is less of the drudgery of work before us than behind us; and finally how many times have we heard our colleagues at work express joy at the fact that it is Friday. We can even spend our hard-earned cash at T.G.I. Friday’s, for now it is time to play.

Here comes the good part. Jeff continues:

Despite the alienation Marx speaks of, we nonetheless continue to show up for work. The reason we do so is simple: necessity. As Marx puts it, labor has become “merely a means to satisfy needs external to it”– namely, it allows us to put food on the table. It was for this reason that Marx argues that the worker “no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions,” for as this point is clarified a few pages later, animals such as bees, beavers, and ants produce “only under the dominion of immediate physical need, while man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom.” It is this latter point that will be the primary focus of the following paper. What does it mean to produce in freedom from physical need? [my italics]

Bell nails it, and in a way I’ve never quite heard it put before. This is what autonomy is. Autonomy is not the untenable idea that reason is a free and fully self-present self-direction wherein there is no heteronomy in the form of pre-discursive neurological and affective processes, where the implements we use play no interactive role in determining that of which we are capable and what our goals are, where we are little gods that have complete mastery over ourselves and over the world about us. Again and again (Freud, Nietzsche, Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, Marx) the unreasonableness of such a conception of reason has been demonstrated, yet still the armchair warriors insist that this is what autonomy is. They even go so far as to engage in circular arguments, saying ‘but, but, but if we didn’t have this sort of reason we wouldn’t be able to do x”; as if wishing pigs could fly and claiming that it is necessary that pigs be able to fly were sufficient to establish that something is true and to dismiss wide swaths of empirical evidence that it is categorically untrue.

No, autonomy, freedom, if it could come to exist, would be that state of affairs in which we could produce without doing so under the necessity of producing. Autonomy would be a form of existence where we aren’t slaves to necessity or needs precisely because necessity and needs have been taken care of. Note how differently this situates the question. When posed in this way we aren’t directed to idealist incantations about transcendental and self-determining subjects. No, here we’re directed to questions about the materiality of the world, the materiality of our body, the materiality of existing social relations, and our entanglement with the entire ecosystem characterizing these three materialities.

I just received my copy of Deleuze and Ethics edited by Nathan Jun and Daniel W. Smith, published by University of Edinburgh Press. My article, “The Ethics of the Event: Deleuze and Ethics Without Arche” is the second in the collection. I haven’t had the opportunity to look at the others yet, but it looks like an excellent collection. There are contributions from Jeff Bell, Laura Cull, Erinn Gilson, Nathan Jun, Eleanor Kaufman, Dan Smith, Kenneth Surin, Anthony Uhlmann, James Williams, And Audrone Zukauskaite.

In my piece, I try to argue that ethics belongs to the domain of the “problematic”. Rather than seeing ethics as the domain of rules and norms that allow us to evaluation actions in advance according to prescriptive criteria, I instead try to conceptualize ethics as the inventiveness called for in response to problematizing events. Problematizing events take place when new actants or agencies appear within collectives, disturbing the relations that structure those collectives and calling for the invention of new forms of relating. Ethical thinking is, in my view, that moment of inventiveness. The article doesn’t quite go as far as I would like, but it’s a start.

One of the most unfortunate things to take place in the world of theory and philosophy was the assimilation of the term “construction” to social, discursive, or representational construction. Scarcely had the term been introduced, than it was assimilated to a thesis about fabrication through language, signs, or representations. And here it bears noting that the term “fabrication” has suffered a similar unfortunate fate, coming to take on connotations of falsehood and artificiality. What should have brought about a revolution in realist epistemology instead became a way of claiming that facts are unreal, merely social, merely linguistic. This, for example, seems to be the root of Brassier’s confusion regarding Latour in his article “Concepts and Objects” in The Speculative Turn. For Brassier Latour has made the unforgivable claim that facts are constructed, from which Brassier seems to infer that facts are unreal, mere products of rhetoric, that they are mere fabrications or ideological falsehoods.

Yet this is the exact opposite of what Latour argues. Representation, rhetoric, and language are far too flimsy for the construction of facts. Here the Latourian (and Stengerian and Object-Oriented) critique of those descendents of Kant and postmodern social constructivists would be the same: they both mistakenly believe that knowledge can be constructed out of something as flimsy as representations. Yet from representations we will never get anything but more representations. The point is not that we don’t represent– we do –but that representation is only one small part of the story. Rather, when we hear the term “construction” we should not think “social construction” out of signs, language, power, and representations, but rather something closer to building a house. I cannot “represent” a house into existence– though clearly a house isn’t a house without being represented as such –but rather I must fabricate the house. And I must fabricate the house with wood, stone, nails, shingles, bricks, hammers, saws, and so on. Moreover, the binding or linking of these materials must accord with laws of physics, geometry, mathematics, and geology (with all houses there’s always the question of foundations). These latter forces are both dis-covered through the activity of fabrication and building, and the builder is in constantly dialogue with these forces as he builds. Decisions to bind such an such materials at this particular point in time will have consequences for how I bind subsequent materials by virtue of how this earlier activity of binding bricks, for example, leads to an actualization of forces down the road in further acts of linking.

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The Democracy of Objects is now listed at the Open Humanities Press Website. The picture to the right is a bit of the gorgeous cover that Tammy Lu designed. Somehow she managed to perfectly capture the affect of what I’m trying to think, weaving motifs that are simultaneously cultural, natural and that have an Asian feel in a tangled network. As I was growing up, our Korean, Chinese, and Japanese friends would always remark that our house was more Asian than theirs. Perhaps this aesthetic comes out in my writing or perhaps it’s just Tammy Lu’s work. Either way I’m delighted.

A number of people have written me asking when it will finally be released. The answer is that I don’t know. At this point, we’re very close. There are a few editorial changes to be made and some formatting issues to be fixed, but overall it’s ready to go. Remember, this is the first open access book that University of Michigan Press has put together and that it’s all been done through volunteer work. I like that. I like all of it. I like it that it’s democratic in the sense that no one will have to buy it if they’re not so inclined and that they’ll still have access to it if they want that access. I like it that it will leave a minimal ecological footprint. I like it that it will be able to circulate throughout the world in both digital and paper form. I like it that we all did this together. I hope that others will also follow in my gesture and contribute to the New Metaphysics Series with Open Humanities Press. It will come out in three forms: HTML for easy reading online, .pdf so you can download it on your readers, and in a paper form with that beautiful cover.

I like this book and I like myself much more in this book. The tone is my own, but it is far less antagonistic and polemical than the tone that inhabited Difference and Givenness. Difference and Givenness was the book of a graduate student. I don’t mean to demean graduate students by any means. Yet reflecting on my own experience, I think our work is often characterized by a certain tone and set of concerns. Insofar as we then exist in a certain unpleasant social circumstance (joblessness and namelessness) we often enact what might be called “prison logic”. It is sometimes said that the person newly incarcerated in prison should pick a fight with the biggest guy in the yard so as to establish respect for ourselves in prison. This is often how it is with early writing. You want to take on everyone, pick fights, to establish your place in the prison yard. You puff your chest up to show how big you are (and, of course, you don’t know you’re doing this) so as to establish a place for yourself. On the other hand, youthful writing is often motivated by a desire to gain mastery of the field and tradition. Thus the tendency is to trace everything in a thinker or a discussion back to the work of others that have come before. The graduate student is to be forgiven for these ways of relating to others and philosophy because they’re in their own milieu of individuation that generates its own singular problems specific to that form of social life and the problems it faces, but this is not an attitude or form of relation that should be celebrated, encouraged, or reinforced.

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