Category: Biopower/Biopolitics

Ontological Egalitarianism, Or, Can We Derive an Ethics from “Life”

My colleague and friend Matthew Taylor has a terrific essay in the current issue of PMLA (Vol. 135, No. 3: 474-491 [May 2020]).  His topic is the “new materialism,” aka “the ontological turn,” although it also crops up under various other aliases.

Most simply put, the “new materialism” declares that all matter is animate; humans lived surrounded by other entities that should be recognized as having agency, as possessing “life.” Specifically, all things act to sustain themselves, perhaps even to better themselves (William James’ meliorism).  One version is Latour’s “trajectories of subsistence” contrasted to a more static notion of “substance.”   The idea is a) to reduce any qualitative distinction between humans and other entities; and b) to introduce a dynamic interactive web of relationships in which both humans and non-humans are entangled to replace the more traditional subject/object split where activity resides in the human subject who works upon passive material objects.  In that traditional view, all the entities have their stable identities, their essences, their abiding substance.

Matt’s essay ties current thinking along these lines back to the “philosophies of life” current in the post-Darwinian intellectual world of (roughly) 1870 to 1920.  I am more familiar with the characterization of Bergson, Nietzsche, James, Pater, and Whitehead as champions of “life.”  Matt shows how “hylozoism” or “panpsychism” (basically, the assertion that all matter is “alive”) was the prevailing view of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century biology as well.  From this point of view, Nietzsche does not look like an outlier, a lonely rebel (as he loved to portray himself), but very much in tune with the dominant intellectual orthodoxies of his time.

Current day versions of hylozoism often think there is an ethical pay-off.  There are two ways to go in an ethical direction from the assertion that all matter is alive.  First, you can preach a deontological respect for “life,” basically extending the Kantian “kingdom of ends” to include everything—thus erasing the privilege of “the human” to arrive at “posthumanism.”  Second, you can use life (as Ruskin wants to do in “Unto the Last”) as your ethical standard.  Whatever promotes life is good; whatever harms life is bad. 

In both cases, it is easy to see that the ethicists among the new materialists are driven by a concern about climate change.  The “respect” position addresses the massive extinctions of our era and bemoans an exclusionary focus on what is good for humans. 

The “promotion of life” position is basically utilitarian.  We judge actions in terms of whether they serve the interests of life—or not.  Since climate change will be a disaster (is already a disaster) for many varieties of life (human and non-human), it is ethically wrong to perform actions that fail to work against that change.

Matt is having none of it.  He does not think you can derive an ethics from an allegiance to life.  I want to consider his reasons for this conclusion—some of which I agree with and others that I want to resist.

He presents four major arguments (as I understand the essay).

1.  There is a central—and fatal—imprecision lurking in the term “life.”  No one is ever able to nail down just what “life” means or entails.  It is hard to deploy something so vague as a standard.  I don’t quite know what to do with this argument, so will leave it be.

A different, but related, argument along these lines seems to me to have real bite.  If you say mountains are alive as are protozoa as are human beings, you obviously need to have a very capacious (and perhaps vacuous) notion of life.  However, at the same time, you can’t simply ignore the differences between mountains, protozoa, and humans.  Inevitably (in other words), forms of life are going to be differentiated within the overarching category of life.  And Matt argues that this differentiation will lead to a hierarchy; some things will be deemed “more alive” than others; there will be “degrees” of life. 

This is the familiar post-structuralist insistence that wherever there is difference, there will be the privileging of one term over the others.  Humans just aren’t equipped (mentally? in terms of the deep structures of thought?) to be egalitarians.  I have always been suspicious of this transcendental move—transcendental because it posits a fundamental form that is endemic to all human mental processes.  I always suspect “false necessity” at such junctures.  Why can’t we equally value things that we recognize to be different?  I don’t see any logical or ontological or psychological impediment to that possibility.

2.  But Matt has a much better argument for the inevitability of hierarchy.  Ethics, he says, requires judgments about better and worse.  You don’t have an ethics is you have a pure egalitarianism.  If you value life, then you must declare some actions harmful to life, even as you applaud others as life-sustaining or promoting.  What is our stance going to be toward the mosquitos that carry malaria, the ticks that carry Lyme disease, and the virus that causes COVID-19, not to mention white supremacists?  How are we going to avoid valuing some forms of life over others when some agents pose a threat to other agents?  In other words, the new ontology repeats the classic liberal mistake of imagining a conflict-free world.  But ethics is precisely about conflict—about choosing between competing visions of the good.  The mosquito who infects me is pursuing life; from its point of view, its actions are not harmful. 

This insistence that ethics must take sides, cannot be universally affirmative, is deeply troubling.  For one thing, this insistence is at the root of many tragic and conservative worldviews.  The tragic version is highlighted in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents.  Freud expresses outrage in that text at the Christian injunction to love one’s enemies.  Such an injunction takes away the very meaning of love, Freud says.  As Yeats puts it, “hearts are to be earned, not had.”  But Freud adds that our only bestowing our love in some cases goes hand-in-hand with our aggressive feelings (and actions) toward those we cannot (or will not) love.  And numbered among those we cannot love is our own self.  The superego’s aggression is directed at myself—as well as at my “enemies.” 

Ethics—the self-righteous attempt to justify our aggressions—hoists us on own petard even as it stands as the crippling condition of an unending and inescapable tragedy: the tragedy of our uncontrolled and uncontrollable aggression.

Conservative thought holds onto the self-righteousness that the tragic vision (which deems all humans trapped in the same play) eschews.  Conservatives hold onto a strong version of the righteous few and the reprobate many; they scorn the idea of “social justice” precisely because it would bestow benefits on the unworthy.  Justice is about getting what you deserve—and thus the equal distribution of any good (whether it be health care, a decent education, or a basic income) is an outrage against morality. 

The liberal/left tries to use the notion of “social justice” to place some things out of the conflict zone.  The liberal must avoid the mistake of wishing away conflict, even as she tries to develop strategies for its mitigation.  More on that later in this post.  For now, Matt’s point against the new ontologists is well-taken.  A univeralist ethos of respect for all forms of life sounds wonderful, but it is so general, so vague, that it can’t stand up for very long when actually encountering facts on the ground.  “Life” pits some forms of life against others, so “life” itself can’t be the standard for adjudicating those conflicts.

3.  This last point—that “life” can’t be the standard—leads Matt to adopt a strict fact/value dichotomy.  You can’t read values out of “life” (or “nature”) is his fairly explicit position.  “Justice” or “equality” or even “reverence for life” are human notions; there is no evidence at all (in Matt’s view) that the world or nature or some basic “life force” cares for any of those human values.  Life carelessly and prodigally deals out death. 

Life, we might say, is deaf and mute.  It has nothing to say to us—and cannot hear anything we say to it.  Humans, like the other life forms identified/celebrated by the new ontology, are the random, utterly contingent, result of long evolutionary processes that were not aiming to produce what ended up being produced.  If ethical ideals are going to get any purchase in this evolutionary production, then it will because humans act to make their ethical values effective. 

      I want to be careful about adopting fact/value canyons.  I am going to skip that can of worms here, only gesturing toward my intuition that the dichotomy functions differently in different contexts, and should be resisted in some of those contexts.  But in this ontological context, I am inclined to accept a fairly drastic nature/human split.  I am uncomfortable doing so, but don’t see a good alternative.

     Two observations underline my willingness to accept that nature and life are amoral, while the human is the realm of value and moral judgments.  The first is that we humans are not inclined to morally condemn hurricanes or animals for their destruction of life.  We will bemoan the fact that the grizzly bear killed a person, but will not be morally indignant.  In other words, we do not hold nature accountable for life-harming actions the way that we do human beings. 

     The second is the point made so forcefully in Plato’s Euthyphro—and in the scene in Genesis where Abraham bargains with Yahweh about saving Sodom from destruction if a certain number of just inhabitants can be identified there.  In both cases, the point is that humans have self-generated standards that they wish/hope/try to get the non-human to adhere to.  “Innocence” is a human concept—and the gods and nature are to be condemned when they inflict suffering on the innocent.  The ethical standard is being imposed on the non-human—rather than the standard being derived from the non-human.  Oedipus at Colonus thus becomes an attempt to save the gods from human condemnation.

The upshot would be a kind of humanism that is hard to evade as long as you want to maintain ethics.  Nietzsche, of course, saw this clearly.  To escape humanism, you had to go “beyond good and evil” and simply embrace the ruthless indifference of the non-human to human values and to life itself.  Wanton destructive indifference, nature red in tooth and claw, is the fact of the matter—and you might as well join ‘em rather than trying to convert them over to (pathetically weak and sentimental) human values.  (Of course, there is also plenty of cooperation among living creatures as well, a fact Nietzsche neglects.  Sometimes, cooperation proves better than competition in advancing one’s life chances.)

4.  Matt also argues that hylozoism almost always leads to a form of Platonism.  He doesn’t put it that way.  But I think it a fair account of the argument.  Basically, the idea is that the general standard (or “form” if we use Platonic vocabulary) of “life” renders every actual instantiation of life an inadequate copy of that ideal.  The logic here is endemic to versions of evolution that see each novelty an improvement on what went before.  (For that reason, hylozoism in the 1870-1920 period was very, very often tied to eugenics, as Matt demonstrates.)  Nietzsche’s “uber-mensch” displays this kind of thinking.  The “true” or “ideal” embodiment of life is always out in front of us, which renders current forms unsatisfactory—perhaps even suitable for sacrifice in order to usher in the better future, just as Stalin and Mao murdered millions in the name of a world to come.  (But, then again, Christianity committed similar murders long before the justification of a warped Darwinism.)

“Life” thus becomes the bringer of, the justification for, death—an argument found in Foucault and Agamben, but perhaps lurking as well in Arendt’s emphatic contempt for “life.”  Certainly, Nietzsche (in another of his guises) points the way here.  Platonism and Christianity preach a disregard for, a nihilistic rejection of, the here and now.  With Christianity, we get the added hope that a non-human force will “redeem” the human—and the whole world.  Against that nihilism, Nietzsche wants to find his way to “affirmation.”  How can we affirm what is here before us, instead of whoring after strange gods and wish-fulfilling futures? 

I am not convinced that an affirmation of “life” necessarily leads to a denigration of the life currently available.  I don’t, in other words, buy the paradox that a stated commitment to life in fact generates a murderous aggression against actually existing life.  I am, however, convinced by Matt’s other argument, i.e. that a bland egalitarianism cannot do the ethical work that needs doing.

So how would I propose going forward?  At this point, I actually think pushing hard at the fact/value dichotomy might prove productive.  We (everything that exists) are not going to be redeemed from the natural (and evolutionary) conditions that set the stage for singular life spans.  But there is a social/cultural world that humans construct in their efforts to respond/adapt to that natural setting.  That social world develops notions of what a “good” or “flourishing” life looks like (where the notion of flourishing in no way needs to be confined to only human life forms).  Life (“bare life”) is a good, but a very minimal one if the means for “flourishing” are not available. 

Egalitarianism is tied to ideals of “social justice” when we define what resources are required to afford the possibility of flourishing—and the political/ethical imperative is to work toward social arrangements where those resources are afforded to all. 

This is a minimalist position.  What goods are needed—clean water and air, enough food, a decent education, health care, security from violence, etc.—to have a life that escapes the sufferings that social arrangements can alleviate?  What tribulations are remediable—not in terms of a redemption from the terms of existence, but in terms of having what is needed to cope with those terms?  These are questions that can only be answered through political processes of deliberation and negotiation. 

The liberal gambit is that providing those necessities to all would mitigate conflict.  Yes, there is conflict now over doing such providing.  But for many countries the idea of providing health care is no longer a live issue.  Constitutionalism is a strategy for removing certain questions from the realm of conflict, of deciding them once and for all.  Not a fool-proof strategy, but it works some time for certain issues.  And some seemingly dead issues can rise again, zombie fashion. 

But the liberal social democrat has this basic agenda: to increasingly make the provision of “basic goods” to all a matter of settled social practice.  That is a way to serve “life” without promoting the death of those currently alive.  But it is serving “life” in relation to human standards of what a “good” or “flourishing” life requires.  So, in that sense, Matt is right to say you can’t derive those standards from life itself.

What about non-human forms of life?  What about climate change?  I do think that comes back to where I started.  We can take the position that respect for all life forms is an ethical imperative—although that will run us into the kinds of problems Matt identifies (namely, that such universal respect is not possible where some life forms actively harm others).  The utilitarian position seems more plausible.  The new ontology can help cement the lesson that human flourishing is dependent in various ways on the larger ecological network of relations in which humans are embedded.  Destroying the planet for short term gain is suicidal.  Still, utilitarianism also has its limits.  It is not utterly convincing to say humans could not flourish if the snow leopard went extinct.  That’s why the deontological argument of respect gets trotted out so often. 

Such puzzles remind us that ethical positions—despite the hopes of philosophers like Kant, Bentham, and Rawls—are never logically air-tight.  Much more important, in my view, is ethical sensibility.  What things outrage us?  What things do we admire?  Unless unnecessary deaths and lives lived in abject poverty strike us as unacceptable, as demeaning to our human capacities to make life well worth the living, we humans cannot expect either rational arguments nor non-human entities (like “life” or “god”) to generate the ethically affirmable life we claim to desire.  Similarly, unless the extinction of the snow leopard strikes us emotionally as a diminishment of the world, we are unlikely to be argued into caring.

The Tree of Life

I have just finished reading Richard Powers’ latest novel, The Overstory (Norton, 2018).  Powers is his own distinctive cross between a sci-fi writer and a realist.  His novels (of which I have read three or four) almost always center around an issue or a problem—and that problem is usually connected to a fairly new technological or scientific presence in our lives: DNA, computers, advanced “financial instruments.”  As with many sci-fi writers, his characters and his dialogue are often stilted, lacking the kind of psychological depth or witty interchanges (“witty” in the sense of clever, off-beat, unexpected rather than funny) that tend to hold my interest as a reader.  I find most sci-fi unreadable because too “thin” in character and language, while too wrapped up in elaborate explanations (that barely interest me) of the scientific/technological “set-up.” David Mitchell’s novels have the same downside for me as Powers’: too much scene setting and explanation, although Mitchell is a better stylist than Powers by far.

So is The Overstory Powers’ best novel?  Who knows?  It actually borrows its structure (somewhat) from Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, while the characters feel a tad less mechanical to me.  But I suspect that’s because the “big theme” (always the driving force of Powers’s novels) was much more compelling to me in this novel, with only Gain of the earlier ones holding my interest so successfully.

The big theme: how forests think (the title of a book that is clearly situated behind Powers’s work even though he does not acknowledge it, or any other sources.)  We are treated to a quasi-mystical panegyric to trees, while being given the recent scientific discoveries that trees communicate with one another; they do not live in accordance with the individualistic struggle for existence imagined by a certain version of Darwinian evolution, but (rather) exist within much larger eco-systems on which their survival and flourishing depend.  The novel’s overall message—hammered home repeatedly—is that humans are also part of that same eco-system—and that competition for the resources to sustain life as contrasted to cooperation to produce and maintain those resources can only lead to disaster.  Those disasters are not just ecological (climate change and depletion of things necessary to life), but also psychological.  The competitive, each against each, mentality is no way to live.

I am only fitfully susceptible to mystical calls to experience some kind of unity with nature.  I am perfectly willing to embrace rationalistic arguments that cooperation, rather than competition, is the golden road to flourishing.  And, given Powers’s deficiencies as a writer, I would not have predicted that the mysticism of his book would move me.  But it did.  That we—the human race, the prosperous West and its imitators, the American rugged individualists—are living crazy and crazy-making lives comes through loud and clear in the novel.  That the alternative is some kind of tree-hugging is less obvious to me most days—but seems a much more attractive way to go when reading this novel.

I have said Powers is a realist.  So his tree-huggers in the novel ultimately fail in their efforts to protect forests from logging.  The forces of the crazy world are too strong for the small minority who uphold the holistic vision.  But he does have an ace up his sleeve; after all, it is “life” itself that is dependent on interlocking systems of dependency. So he does seem to believe that, in the long run, the crazies will be defeated, that the forces of life will overwhelm the death-dealers.  Of course, how long that long run will be, and what the life of the planet will look like when the Anthropocene comes to an end (and human life with it?) is impossible to picture.

Life will prevail.  That is Powers’ faith—or assertion.  Is that enough?  I have also read recently an excellent book by Peter J. Woodford: The Moral Meaning of Nature: Nietzsche’s Darwinian Religion and its Critics (University of Chicago Press, 2018).  Woodford makes the convincing argument that Nietzsche takes from Darwin the idea that “life” is a force that motivates and compels.  Human behavior is driven by “life,” by what life needs.  Humans, like other living creatures, are puppets of life, blindly driven to meet its demands.  “When we speak of values, we speak under the inspiration, under the optic of life; life itself forces us to establish values; when we establish values, life itself values through us” (Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols).

 

Here is Woodford’s fullest explanation of Nietzsche’s viewpoint:

“The concept that allows for the connection between the biological world, ethics, aesthetics, and religion is the concept of a teleological drive that defines living activity.  This drive is aimed at its own satisfaction and at obtaining the external conditions of its satisfaction. . . . Tragic drama reenacts the unrestricted, unsuppressed expression of [the] inexhaustible natural eros of life for itself. . . . Nietzsche conceived life as autotelic—that is, directed at itself as the source of its own satisfaction.  It was this autotelic nature of life that allowed Nietzsche to make the key move from description of a natural drive to discussion of the sources and criteria of ethical value and, further, to the project of a ‘revaluation of value’ that characterized his final writings.  Life desires itself, and only life itself is able to satisfy this desire.  So the affirmation of life captures what constitutes the genuine fulfillment, satisfaction, and flourishing of a biological entity.  Nietzsche’s appropriation of Darwinism transformed his recovery of tragedy into a project of recovering nature’s own basic affirmation of itself in a contemporary culture in which this affirmation appeared, to him at least, to be absent.  His project was thus inherently evaluative at the same time that it was a description of a principle that explained the nature and behavior of organic forms” (38).

Here’s my takeaway.  Both Powers and Nietzsche believe that they are describing the way that “life” operates.  Needless to say, they have very different visions of how life does its thing, with Powers seeing human competitiveness as a perverted deviation from the way life really works, while Nietzsche (at least at times) sees life as competition, as the struggle for power, all the way down.  (Cooperative schemes for Nietzsche are just subtle mechanisms to establish dominance—and submission to such schemes generates the sickness of ressentiment.)

What Wofford highlights is that this merger of the descriptive with the evaluative doesn’t really work.  How are we to prove that life is really this way when there are life forms that don’t act in the described way?  Competition and cooperation are both in play in the world.  What makes one “real life,” and the other some form of “perversion”?  Life, in other words, is a normative term, not a descriptive one.  Or, at the very least, there is no clean fact/value divide here; our biological descriptions are shot through and through with evaluation right from the start.  We could say that the most basic evaluative statement is that it is better to be alive than to be dead.  Which in Powers quickly morphs into the statement that it is better to be connected to other living beings within a system that generates a flourishing life, while in Nietzsche it becomes the statement that it is better to assume a way of living that gives fullest expression to life’s vital energies.

[An aside: the Nazis, arguably, were a death cult–and managed to get lots and lots of people to value death over life.  What started with dealing out death to the other guy fairly quickly moved into embracing one’s own death, not–it seems to me–in the mode of sacrifice but in the mode of universal destruction for its own sake.  A general auto de fe.]

In short, to say that life will always win out says nothing about how long “perversions” can persist or about what life actually looks like.  And the answer to the second question—what life looks like—will always be infected by evaluative wishes, with what the describer wants life to look like.

That conclusion leaves me with two issues.  The first is pushed hard by Wofford in his book.  “Life” (it would seem) cannot be the determiner of values; we humans (and Powers’ book makes a strong case that other living beings besides humans are in on this game) evaluate different forms of life in terms of other goods: flourishing, pleasure, equality/justice.  This is an argument against “naturalism.”  Life (or nature) is not going to dictate our values; we are going to reserve the right/ability to evaluate what life/nature throws at us.  Cancer and death are, apparently, natural, but that doesn’t mean we have to value them positively.

The second issue is my pragmatist, Promethean one.  To what extent can human activity shape what life is.  Nietzsche has always struck me as a borderline masochist.  For all his hysterical rhetoric of activity, he positions himself to accept whatever life dishes out.  Amor fati and all that.  But humans and other living creatures alter the natural environment all the time to better suit their needs and desires.  So “life” is plastic—and, hence, a moving target.  It may speak with a certain voice, but it is only one voice in an ensemble.  I have no doubt that it is a voice to which humans currently pay too little heed. But it is not a dictator, not a voice to which we owe blind submission.  That’s because 1) we evaluate what life/nature dishes out and 2) because we have powers on our side to shape the forms life takes.

Finally, all of this means that if humans are currently shaping life/nature in destructive, life-threatening ways, we cannot expect life itself to set us on a better course.  The trees may win in the long run—but we all remember what Keynes said about the long run.  In the meantime, the trees are dying and we may not be very far behind them.

Gandhi on Fear and Political Action

Here is yet another attempt to state succinctly one question I have been worrying on this blog for the last six or seven months:  if you deny any legitimacy at all to currently constituted order (whether that order is political, economic, or social), what does that entail for the strategy and tactics to be adopted by your politics?  If there is no justice to be found or means toward gaining democratic access within current political institutions (i.e. if our democracy is rotten to the core, completely unreachable by its citizens), then how to move forward?  Not surprisingly, good answers to these questions are scarce.  In the place of good answers, what I have encountered in my readings over the past year (Hardt/Negri, the material on contemporary social movements, Butler on assembly, Moten and now Livingston’s essay) either gesture toward some kind of “multitude” that gathers (but then does what?) or suggests a retreat into some kind of elsewhere, outside of the prevailing madness of the current political/economic reality.

One claim, found in almost all writing about non-violence as a political strategy (so it is present in Todd May and Gene Sharp), is found in Livingston as well: the jujitsu argument.  Basically, the idea is that non-violence often works by making the adversaries’ power/strength into a weakness.  As Livingston puts it, “the police and the state cannot threaten or coerce where there is no fear of death” (12).  Bertrand Russell’s somewhat different version of this argument was to say that if the Belgians had simply laid down arms in 1914 when the Germans came marching in, there would have been much less bloodshed.  Armies are not going to kill people who are not actively resisting/fighting against them. Set aside for the moment the fact that 20th century tyrannies have been all too willing to kill non-resisting, passive people.  More germane to my concerns here is that such non-resistance does nothing to undo, to effect a transformation, of the status quo. Just because power is nonplussed or embarrassed, that hardly means it is going to dissolve.

If non-violence effects a jujitsu reversal of the relations of force it can only do so because of the effect on witnesses—witnesses who have some kind of power within the polity.  In Gandhi’s case, that appeal would have to be to British subjects.  He would demonstrate to those people the moral outrages of empire—and thus make empire unsustainable.  King’s work in the South followed a similar path.  He was out to demonstrate to the polity the cruelties of Jim Crow.  In other words, as I said in the last post, sacrifice is only politically efficacious if it is theater, if it is public.  If the state (or other constituted authorities) can kill and keep the fact of its killing a secret, then non-violence has no other way of achieving that hoped-for jujitsu. In short, I don’t see how any non-violent strategy is not deeply and unavoidably dependent on moral appeal–and such appeals rely on the faith/hope that political actors can be swayed by moral considerations.  Our current hopelessness resides, in large part, in loss of faith in the efficacy of a politics based on morality–where the key framework for moral positions circle around questions of justice.

But today I want to go down a different path, one that engages with the problematic of “life.”  Basically, another track I have been trying to tread this past year concerns the suspicion of “life” as a goal/end, a suspicion found in the work of Foucault, Arendt, Agamben, Charles Taylor, and (now) in Gandhi as represented by Livingston.  An attachment to “life” and a notion that the primary political goal is to ensure its “flourishing” is identified as an absolutely core feature of liberalism (Martha Nussbaum is one key figure here) and is seen, at best, as the legitimizing premise of a “bio-power” that augments the power of the state in the name of its ability (through public health measures, compulsory education, policing measures that promote “public safety,”  food and drug administrations, welfare policies, and other interventions) to make its citizens lives better.  In more extreme critiques, such as found in Taylor and Gandhi (it would seem, as I will show in what follows), those suspicious of setting up “life” as a goal argue that, perversely, the attachment to life serves to create political regimes that end up violently dealing in destruction and death.  Such writers employ the rhetorical strategy that Albert O. Hirschman, in his wonderful book The Rhetoric of Reaction, called the most exhilarating piece of reactionary rhetoric, namely the argument that the efforts to cure a certain ill were actually the means toward perpetuating and even augmenting that ill.  Hence, in Hirschman’s example, the Charles Murray argument that welfare payments actually make their recipients worse off than if you left them in utter poverty.

Gandhi (let’s leave Taylor aside for the moment; I will return to him in subsequent posts) was undoubtedly a reactionary, if we mean by that term someone who wishes to turn aside or even reverse what is deemed “modern.”  Gandhi unabashedly denigrates and wishes to secede from “modern civilization.”  In the Western context, as Corey Robin has shown, reactionary thought is almost always tied to a repudiation of the modern in its egalitarian clothes.  Western reactionaries are defenders of privilege against what is seen as the leveling effects of modernity—both its political attachment to the equality of all citizens (reactionaries thus fight against the extension of political and social rights—such as the right to vote—against each attempt to extend those rights to new groups like non-whites and women) and modernity’s more radical (in all its leftist forms) attachment to social (status) and economic equality.

It is not clear to me where Gandhi stands on equality; I suspect that he believes the path to “self-rule” that is to be achieved by the practices of satyagraha (the quest for truth) are open to all.  So he is not a western style reactionary, fighting against the vulgar masses’ accession to the privileges, status, rights, and prosperity of the chosen few.

But Gandhi is deploying the perversity thesis in his attempt to step outside of modern civilization.  The linchpin of his argument (as Livingston portrays it) is an analysis of “fear.”  “Modern civilization is intoxicated by its attachment to a materialist conception of the self as an organic body struggling to sustain its corporeal integrity in a hostile environment. The highest good of modern civilization . . . is to promote bodily happiness” (10).  It is this attachment to bodily happiness that underwrites the modern subject’s willingness to grant the state such huge amounts of power—power ostensibly used to help secure that bodily happiness, i.e. “bio-power” (although, of course, Gandhi does not use that term).  However, “the attachment to bodily happiness engendered by civilization produces illness, disappointment and, ultimately, fear.  The modern self clings to bodily happiness out of a fear of harm and death; civilization unwittedly perpetuates this very fear in its attempt to redress it” (11).

We are slaves to our body—and to the fears generated by that body’s vulnerability to various harms, most drastically death.  We are incapable of “self-rule,” of true freedom, in Gandhi’s view if we do not get over that fear.  “Cultivating fearlessness in the face of death is not simply a preparation for political action; it is itself the practice of freedom itself” (13).  Gandhi preaches the abandonment of “the cowardly attachment to mere life. ‘If we are unmanly today,’ Gandhi asserts in 1916, ‘we are so, not because we do not know how to strike, but because we fear to die’”(12).  In advocating for this “courage,” this fearlessness, that is required for those aspiring to “self-rule,” Gandhi “fuses the renunciation of the sannyasi priest with the fearless activity of the warrior class (Kshatriya) as two sides of a singular search for truth” (16).

The priestly side is premised on a metaphysics of spirituality.  Gandhi writes: “The body exists because of our ego.  The utter extinction of the body is maksha [attainment of the truth; full self-realization]” (16).  I don’t have anything to say about such a claim, except to say that if Gandhian politics is dependent on accepting that the body is illusion, that it does not truly exist—or that its existence can be nullified by some act of self-transcendence—then I can not participate in Gandhian politics nor do I want to.  The pleasures of the body—food, sex, vigorous exercise—seem to me among the chief goods of human life—and I am looking for a politics that affirms and enables the ordinary rather than one which extols a repudiation of the ordinary in the name of some “higher” good.  Furthermore, I think the historical record rather convincingly demonstrates that politics driven by “non-ordinary” pursuits have a considerable track record of proving tyrannous and death-dealing.

But I want to focus on the “warrior” side of the occasion at the moment.  I think Gandhi’s understanding of the stakes—and even as the way the game plays out—are eerily and disturbingly reminiscent of Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic.  Basically, it seems that the fundamental path to freedom for Gandhi is to overcome the fear of one’s death.  Recall that in Hegel the one who lets the fear of death motivate him becomes the slave; the one who can put his life unreservedly on the line becomes the master.  The Gandhian twist is to achieve that overcoming of fear by basically declaring that life—at least bodily life—has no value anyway.  The master tries to gain control over me by playing on my fear of death.  So the best response is to overcome that fear, to be fearless.  And the benefit of—what I gain by—overcoming that fear is freedom.  (A pretty empty freedom to my mind if it entails renouncing all bodily pleasures, but maybe freedom is worth that high price.)

My kids gave me a bumper sticker that read: “Oh well, I wasn’t using my civil liberties anyway.”  Gandhi’s position strikes me in some ways as similar.  The outrage of tyrants is that they make living my ordinary life impossible; they threaten that life everyday, and make it miserable in various ways when they don’t actually take it away.  And the best response is to say, “well, life isn’t valuable to me anyway.  Do your worst.”  Hard for me to swallow.

What also troubles me is the very acceptance of the Hegelian scenario.  It leads to two things: first, the notion that manhood—i.e. true courage, the status of warrior—rests on this confrontational encounter with the other.  You can only have political freedom, full status, by facing down this other who aims to dominate you.  Your options are very few: a) you have to dominate him instead, b) you can cowardly submit and hence become a slave, or  c) (in Gandhi’s playing out of the game) you can achieve fearlessness by showing that you don’t care a fig for the life that your adversary aims to take from you.  A zero-sum game if there ever was one—and one that fatalistically seems to accept that there is no other basis, no other way for organizing, fundamental human social relations.  Our relations to others are antagonistic to the core; it’s a pretty fable to tell ourselves otherwise.  No wonder there is then the spiritualist temptation to say there is another realm altogether, one where we can step out of this terrible scenario of endless antagonism.  This world is inevitably so bad that we need to invent one elsewhere.

Hegel, of course, then is at pains to show that the master’s “victory” is hollow; the battle over, the master’s life becomes meaningless.  The struggle is all for the warrior.  Once it is over, his occupation is gone.  Whereas the slave finds meaning in his occupation, in the very work that the master makes him do.  Not surprisingly, I interpret that next step in Hegel’s text as a discovery of the resources resting in the ordinary.  Apart from the heightened moment of confrontation, in the daily rounds of living a life, lie meanings and pleasures sufficient to day thereof.

I want to develop that notion of the ordinary—and of a politics that would nurture/attend to/be built on the cooperative relations that function within the ordinary in subsequent posts (while continuing  to think about Taylor’s claim that such “bodily happiness”—to use Gandhi’s term—is “shallow.”)

But to finish up today’s post, I want to highlight something else: namely, the implied (or not so implied) contempt in using the term “coward” to refer to those who are attached to “bodily happiness.”  It is no accident that Gandhi resorts to gendered terms (lack of “manliness”) when his thoughts turn to fear and fearlessness—and no accident that this proponent of non-violence talks of “warriors.”  (Livingston tries to claim Gandhi upends traditional gendered associations, but I find his argument strained at that point.)  Running throughout all the critiques of “life”—which entail, as I have been suggesting, the recognition that attachment to life is joined to an intense valuation of “the ordinary”—is an affinity to the long-standing disdain for the “bourgeois,” for the unheroic lives of the classes that have the nerve to push the aristocracy to the sidelines, and who devote such attention to “getting and spending.”  (I think we get this contempt for the bad taste and vulgar pleasures and petty ambitions of the masses in spades in Arendt’s hatred of the social and her diatribes against a politics geared toward issues of sustaining life.  Her politics is meant to be heroic through and through by showing its disregard of such material issues.  “As for living, we have our servants to do that for us”—a favorite quote of Yeats’s, taken from a French symbolist writer.)  The haughty aristocrat merges with the splendid warrior, the one who doesn’t count costs and give a fig for his life, willing to put it on the line at any moment since his honor, his sense of self-worth, and his dignity are all far more valuable than life.  (Nietzsche also obviously partakes in this lingering aristocratic disdain for the bourgeois and his material concerns.)

Gandhi is hardly as outrageous as Arendt and Nietzsche in his contempt for the masses.  I have already mentioned that he certainly seems to believe that the quest for truth is open to all.  (Similarly, Arendt certainly believes that the realm of political action is open to all.  She just laments that the moderns, because of misplaced desires and allegiances, seem to prefer social activities to political action. Nietzsche is another matter altogether; he does think most humans incapable of heroic action.)  Nevertheless, Gandhi is accusing the mass of men of cowardice.  He is saying that lots of people desire the wrong thing.  They are living their lives in a fundamentally misguided way, one that also entails their unfreedom.  The use of the term “mere life” (12) is a strong indicator here.  Somehow, “life” itself is not a sufficient reason for living; there needs to be something more.  It is that insistence, that hectoring admonishment, that I am suspicious of.  I think the heroic life, with its attachment to the agonistic encounter we find in Hegel, much more trouble than it is worth.

Judith Butler on Life

Have just finished reading Judith Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Harvard UP, 2015), which is a bit of a slog since it is repetitive and not leavened with many concrete examples.  But Butler appears obsessed with the same issues and problems that occupy much of my mental space, so I was grateful to find I am not alone in my worries or entirely off the rails.  I also pretty much agree with most of her political intuitions and ambitions.  As when I read Dewey, I find that I think Butler is right 80% of the time—and there are very few writers with whom I find myself in such alignment.

To the point: Butler just forthrightly declares that Arendt is wrong about “life.”  What Arendt fails to register is that the means for life are “differentially distributed”—and that such distribution is a matter of politics, of power.  It is, therefore, not just wrong but a matter of pernicious blindness to place the question of sustaining life outside the realm of politics, at the same time condemning those whose lives are overwhelmingly (out of necessity) devoted to “labor,” to securing the means of survival, to nonappearance in the political space of appearances.

Butler ends up, though she is adamantly resistant to admitting it, in a position akin to that of Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach.  Here is the key Butler paragraph:

“We have mentioned that bodies cannot be understood at all without the environments, the machines, and the social organization of interdependency upon which they rely, all of which form the conditions of their persistence and flourishing.  And finally, even if we come to understand and enumerate the requirements of the body, do we struggle only for those requirements to be met?  As we have seen, Arendt surely opposed that view.  Or do we struggle as well for bodies to thrive, and for lives to become livable?  As I hope to have suggested, we cannot struggle for a good life, a livable life, without meeting the requirements that allow a body to persist.  It is necessary to demand that bodies have what they need to survive, for survival is surely a precondition for all other claims we make.  And yet, that demand proves insufficient since we survive precisely in order to live, and life, as much as it requires survival, must be more than survival in order to be livable.  One can survive without being able to live one’s life.  And in some cases, it surely does not seem worth it to survive under such conditions.  So, an overarching demand must be precisely for a livable life, that is, a life that can be lived” (208-209, emphasis Butler’s).

Butler says a little bit more about this idea of a “livable life,” but not much.  She fights shy, as we would expect (and hope), of identifying any single standard by which we could judge a life’s “worth.”  But her very appeal to the notion that life requires more than just survival, along with her use (throughout the book) of the term “flourishing,” means that her politics must function on two levels.

Level one is the minimalist level/position.  Here the point is to protest stringently against all those forms of power and social organization that deny survival to people (and, perhaps, other beings).  Along with that protest should come attempts to imagine—and even to embody—alternative organizations that do meet the “requirements” of “persistence.”  In seeing those requirements as “preconditions,” Butler points toward what, in my terms, I would consider a “floor,” a minimal set of primary goods (to use Rawls’s terms) all (with no exceptions) can access.  In our horrible political moment, when a resurgent right wing can openly declare its desire to deny such access (to health care, to clean air and water, to safe working conditions, to protection from state violence and from war) to some populations, insistence on that minimum has assumed a new importance.  Egalitarianism in our current context takes, I believe, this form of insisting on a minimalist provision of those things that meet the “requirements of persistence.”

But Butler, like everyone who approaches this topic, takes the position that the minimalist position is not enough.  It is not even clear that it should take logical or political priority.  A minimalist life is not obviously a life that can be affirmed.  “[I]n some cases,” as Butler puts it, “it surely does not seem worth it to survive under such conditions.”  Life shouldn’t just survive, it should flourish.

And it is with that term “flourish,” [which comes from an Aristotelean tradition that Butler, in an off-hand remark earlier in the book calls “outdated” (194)] that Nussbaum’s work can prove useful.  When Butler goes to flesh out what makes a life livable, she highlights “the complex relationalities” in which any body is entangled and advocates a politics that “understand[s] and attend[s] to the complex set of relations without which we do not exist at all” (209).  This thought, not unsurprisingly, leads Butler into a bit of a swamp.  How to think our inevitable dependency (our lives cannot persist, no less flourish without relations to other beings that also make us dependent and vulnerable) without reinforcing all the forms of dependency that power installs?  In short, we need to find ways to manage dependency, to organize it, that do not enable differential access to the means of persistence and flourishing.  To put in another way: the inevitable fact of dependency provides a worrisome perfect opportunity for the establishment of non-egalitarian hierarchies.

Butler’s core philosophical position (her transcendental claim in her recent books) is the dependency of the human condition (to use Arendt’s terms) or, more broadly, the condition of all planetary life.  I use “transcendental” here in its Kantian sense—and Butler is performing what I called elsewhere “transcendental blackmail.”  If we accept that she has identified “necessary,” inescapable conditions of our existence, then she has us where she wants us.  We must come to terms with dependency because we are all dependent, whether we want to be or not.

From there, her argument must operate on three levels.  The first is to oppose those who would deny that dependency is our basic condition.  Here Butler retains the psychoanalytic perspective that has retreated to the margins in her recent work (as contrasted to earlier work like Gender Trouble and The Passionate Attachment to Subjection.)  Humans are prone to “disavow” dependency, to fantasize a self-sufficiency that aims to escape the vulnerability to others that dependency entails.  And the psychic/political costs of disavowal, especially in its generation of aggression against anything that threatens the delusion, are high.

The second level we might call the egalitarian one.  Here we get the political position I have called minimalist, with its commitment to an egalitarian distribution of vulnerability—and to the resources by which we (as a political community) attempt to protect ourselves from “precarity,” from the fact that every life is open to the forces that can end life.  None of us, ultimately, is protected from death.  The actual things that will cause my death and the date of that death are contingent; but the fact that I will die is not contingent.  Politics involves, among other things, an attempt to protect selves against untimely (premature) and unnecessary (gratuitous) death.  That is where “biopolitics” enters: public health measures so I don’t die of cholera or influenza when certain actions could minimize my chances of contracting such diseases, or food distribution systems that prevent malnutrition and starvation, or refugee provisions that protect selves against state violence and/or war.  The idea seems to be that there are preventable deaths, even if death itself cannot be prevented, and that politics rightfully attends to securing “life” wherever possible.  To that extent, Butler is with Ruskin—and against Arendt, Taylor, and (maybe) Foucault, all of whom are deeply suspicious of a politics organized around “life” as a (if not “the”) supreme good.

The third level brings us to flourishing.  Mere survival is not enough.  In some conditions (in prison or a concentration camp) perhaps survival is not even a good.  Such lives, in Butler’s incantatory phrase, are not deemed “livable.”  So a politics should demand more than attention to the conditions of life’s persistence.  Biopolitics is not enough if it only attends to biology, to the requirements of the body.  Here is where the notion of “flourishing” enters—and the only specific thing Butler has to say about flourishing is that it involves the question of our relations to others—where others are not just human beings, but the whole ensemble of beings and things with whom we co-inhabit the planet.  (Is this the Arendtian “world”?  I think yes and no—and may take up the complexity of that question in a future post.)

Nussbaum goes much, much further in trying to specify what would qualify as flourishing.  Nussbaum certainly highlights “affiliation” in her list of ten things that flourishing encompasses.  She (Nussbaum) does not base the need to have relations with others that are sustaining and fulfilling on the basis of a shared dependency as Butler would, but she does recognize sociality (my term, not hers) as constitutive of life itself.  To block the capacity to have families or friends (as American slavery did, for example) is to deny a fundamental requirement of life, even if the person so deprived has enough food and shelter and rest to survive.  The third level, then, of a politics of life attends to those things above the minimalist requirements for survival that are part and parcel of a “full” or “flourishing” life.

Butler does not go into specifics, I think, for a whole host of reasons—and most of them are not good reasons.  To put it most bluntly, I think it’s a failure of courage.  To remain on the level of slogan and abstraction—the level of Butler’s repeated appeal to her notion of a “livable life,” with less frequent employment of the word “flourishing”—is to avoid risking offending anyone by listing concrete requirements for flourishing.  Butler has always been hyper-sensitive (an artefact of her early formation in the schools of Hegel and Derrida) to the ways that any positive term both excludes and relies upon the negative.  So, for example, Butler avoids the difficult issue of autonomy.  Surely, Butler believes that flourishing would include the ability to make some basic choices for oneself: about religious belief, about where to live, about career, about romantic/sexual partners.  But she is clearly also committed to the view that autonomy is precarious at the least, and a delusion at the worst.  How, then, to affirm some kind of autonomy while also acknowledging how a self’s existence in a web of social, cultural, emotional, and dependent relationships qualifies that autonomy?  Or, even worse, how to think through the ways that attempts to achieve autonomy are, in some cases, not only counter-productive but positively destructive?  Butler, as a thinker, is allergic (it seems to me) to thinking through trade-offs and compromises among competing goods.  By remaining on a certain level of abstraction, she can avoid such messiness.

So let me end by laying my cards on the table.  I think that I find Butler’s recent work so appealing, so consonant with my own worries and obsessions, because I think hers is a liberal sensibility in the Richard Rorty way of describing that sensibility.  Rorty calls it “bleeding heart liberalism,” a deep disgust at the suffering that humans inflict on other humans (which can now be extended to a disgust with the way humans treat non-human beings and the environment) and the consequent attempt to organize politics to minimize suffering.  Add to that sensibility the egalitarian insistence that all humans have an equal claim to be protected from suffering—and to live a full life—and you get the fundamentals of liberalism.  The details (where the devil  resides) is in how to organize the polity to advance those goods.  But the emotional bases of liberalism lie in that antipathy to inflicted suffering—no matter what the source (the state, the corporation, the bully) of that suffering.

But there is also another way of thinking about liberalism, the Isiah Berlin way, and here Butler fights shy of liberalism.  Berlin’s focus was on plural goods and trade-offs.  Basically, he was saying that humans can’t get it all to work logically and seamlessly, that our beautiful philosophical models, logically coherent, can never be materialized.  Instead, we live amidst the endless contestation of competing goods, many of which are fully worthy of endorsement, but which cannot be all realized simultaneously.  It is learning how to live with, manage, and tolerate compromises—even as whatever trade-off we have accepted today will be rejected and revised tomorrow—that characterizes a certain kind of pragmatic liberalism.  Call it “good enough” politics (echoing Melanie Klein on mothering), with the added proviso that any arrangement will only be temporary, and will always fail to satisfy someone.  Politics is endless wrangling—and thus deeply unsatisfying.  But the dream of ending the wrangling is the stuff of the ever present frustration with parliamentary democracy—and most often fuels authoritarian visions that hope to transcend the displeasures of pluralism.

I am not accusing Butler of being an authoritarian thinker.  She is as wary of being authoritarian as any writer that I know.  But I do think that wariness leads her to pull her punches fairly often.  She won’t take a concrete stand for fear of seeming to want to legislate.  But I take Berlin’s point to be that legislation is something we need to do, even as every act of legislation is an imperfect compromise, an unsatisfying trade-off.  We can’t get what we want, and all too often don’t get what we need.  But holding out for the perfect is no solution to that dilemma.  As Rorty always insisted, we are in the realm of the comparative when it comes to making judgments about political decisions, actions, and arrangements.  We are not in a position to identify—even less to enact—the best.  We are only in a position to consider if this action, arrangement, law, decision is better than that one.  Butler only does that kind of judging at a very high level of abstraction, where a livable life is better than a non-livable one.