The Use-Value of Ethics: Antonio Negri’s Hopeful Time

This post emerges out of a close reading I did of one of Negri’s toughest texts, “The Constitution of Time,” which is in the Time for Revolution book put out by Continuum. I’m referencing the hardback edition, which has different pagination than the paperback edition. My thanks to Adam, Anthony, and Brad for hosting the post at AUFS.

I’d suggest that Negri’s “The Constitution of Time” can be understood as part of a contemporary ethical project. I am using “ethics” here in the sense of a way of life, and it’s how I understand Negri’s usage of “the practice of theory,” such as the following statement: “When the practice of theory is directed simply towards the constitution of the transcendent, time is non-existence. Time is multiplicity. Time is a theological scandal.” (30) I think that his (uneven) attempt to chart out a materialist theory of time is more readily understandable in these terms, and I’d like to  draw out the main contours of this ethics in order to clarify his pervasive recourse to the language of hope. Given Negri’s grounding of his own project in Spinoza, this is something I’ve found a bit troubling, even though I’m willing to entertain the idea that Negri does the some kind of rewriting to terms like hope that Spinoza famously does with God. Nevertheless, reading through “The Constitution of Time” was a bit of a revelation for me in my study of Negri, and despite the fact that this text is at times even more difficult than The Savage Anomaly, I’ve found it pretty helpful for getting a sense of what he’s up to in terms of his own ethics.

The first place that Negri’s ethics can be detected is in his polemical opposition to the “re-equilibrating calculus” of Keynes and Polanyi. (41) The fundamental distinction in Negri’s text is between the empty, reversible, measuring time of capitalism, and the constitutive, composing, open time of communism. Negri suggests that the second has been made possible by the first, which for him is why the “overcoming of capitalism occurs on the basis of needs constructed by capitalism.” (26) The more that capital has expanded on a global scale, the more difficult it becomes to measure labor with time. When capital has expanded far enough, when it “invests the whole of life,” then “time is not the measure of life, but is life itself.” (35) This paradox is one way to describe real subsumption; in conquering life, capital has seemingly become victorious once and for all. There is no longer an alternative to the M-C-M’ relation. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Communism, ethics, immanence, Marxism, Negri, politics, Spinoza. Comments Off

That’ll preach

One of my favorite games is to declare, in the midst of a conversation, “That’ll preach!” Most of the time, the declaration is ironic or absurd. The exceptions are sometimes interesting, though.

Case in point, this morning. I was talking to a friend of mine about an interview with László Krasznahorkai, in which he says toward the end:

According to Krasznahorkai, the deepest loss is the loss of a culture of poverty – the ability to “sing wonderful songs when we are poor”. Now, he says, “… we only have people who don’t have money … everybody wants to be rich, everybody has only one dream, but people, do we really have one dream – I ask – is this the only aim in this shit, to have much more money?”

There’s nowhere left beyond the reach of the market, he continues, “… no empty spaces with possibilities, only stupid spaces, spaces in which you can’t do anything other than wait to return from this space …” There are perhaps theorists who could explain why this has happened, he adds, but after these explanations “… everything goes on – why? I see you, and I ask you – why?”

He gestures to the computer sitting on the table at his elbow. “This is the result of 10,000 years? Really? We have microphone, laptop, this technical society – that’s all? This is sad, and very disappointing. After so many geniuses in the human story from Leonardo to Einstein, from the Buddha to Endre Szemerédi, these are fantastic figures, and their work is unbelievably important and we cannot do anything with it – why?”

My friend objected to what he regarded as a certain romanticizing of old-time poverty. I disagreed with him on a number of grounds, but in the end conceded for the sake of conversation. I argued instead that what if the point is less some kind of nostalgia for the past, and more a heightened indictment of the present? Nostalgia, after all, is only really a problem when it overly informs present action.

Fundamentalist preaching, for example, can be boiled down to “Our belief in ethical progress has doomed us to moral regress,” and will appeal to the past as a remedy. But is it possible to accept their diagnosis without the prescribed remedy, and confess instead that of all the world’s guilty parties throughout history, we of the here & now are the guiltiest — that instead of improving or progressing beyond the past, we are to blame for whatever entropic decay we’re enduring and systemic abuse we’re committing.(Obviously, there are gradations of ‘blame’ to spread around. None of this necessarily has to extend into strict moral equivalence. The point being we blame in order not to distinguish the wronged from the wrong, but to identify our different responsibilities and responses to present shittiness.)

If we could accept this, if we could preach this(!), whether it is measurably or qualitatively true or not, could something good, something beyond self-loathing, come of it?

Thoughts on Seminar VII

Yesterday, Stephen Keating and I had a great discussion of Lacan’s Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. There is much that is impressive about this seminar, which seems to me to operate at a higher level of ambition and reach than the first three, but there is also much that is puzzling — most notably the central question of the sense in which this is an ethics.

As Stephen suggested, perhaps Lacan was not so much putting forward a normative ethics as performing a kind of thought experiment, asking what ethics would look like in light of psychoanalysis. Read the rest of this entry »

Moral dilemmas as intellectual bullying

In my social science course, we’re reading Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan on moral development. Kohlberg uses longitudinal interviews based on moral dilemmas to measure moral development, which for him moves essentially through self-interest to social conformity to something like a liberal respect for human rights. The only problem with his system is that it doesn’t appear to work for women’s development, and Gilligan points out that in many of Kohlberg’s interviews with women, the problem seems to be that they resist the simplistic set-up of the scenarios and refuse to accept the implied either/or of the dilemma.

For instance, one of the dilemmas features a man who has to choose between stealing medicine and letting his wife die. This is perfectly calibrated to measure Kohlberg’s stages, because it poses a sharp contrast between legal and moral obligations. It also makes no fucking sense, and the women tend to pick up on that, essentially asking, “Are you sure these are the only two options?”

It strikes me that what Kohlberg regards as “retrograde” answers are actually more useful as concrete moral reflection. His dilemmas are meant to measure moral deliberation, but as Gilligan points out, they are really meant to produce a certain type of answer (in this case, the one correlated with one’s developmental stage).

As I reflected on my experience, it seems that that has always been my experience with the moral hypotheticals that populate Anglo-American philosophy as well as political punditry. The “ticking time-bomb” scenario is not meant to produce any real insight into torture, for instance, but to shut down any actual reflection and force one’s interlocutor to say that torture is permitted. It’s similar with discussions of drone warfare: the moral dilemma posed is always that between land invasion and drone warfare, and what kind of monster would prefer a land invasion? Yet I daresay those aren’t the only two options. Or we could even take the example of voting for Obama: yes, I prefer Obama over Romney, Democrats over Republicans — but is that really where the discussion has to end?

This is the dark side of reasoned argument, where debate itself becomes a form of violence. Who hasn’t laboriously constructed a bulletproof argument and been blinded by rage and frustration when one’s interlocutor could not be forced to agree? “But surely,” you sputter, “you have to admit that…” And at this point, only one response is possible: “I don’t have to admit anything!”

Is hypocrisy to be preferred?

In the last decade or so, one has frequently heard people express the sentiment that it is somehow “better” for powerful politicians to openly proclaim the evil things they do, because “at least it’s out in the open.” In my mind, this is profoundly and disturbingly misguided, as our present experience with Obama’s “kill list” shows. When Bush openly claimed excessive powers, his party embraced that position and it became part of the mainstream debate. Similarly now with Obama’s “kill list” — there are now liberal pundits who are openly defending the indefensible, simply because it’s their guy doing it. I don’t think any rational person can argue that this course of events has improved the chances of rolling back the Bush-Obama anti-terror policies.

What’s nice about hypocrisy is that it at least maintains some point of connection with morality. It keeps moral principles — like “you don’t torture people” or “you don’t send killer robots to murder people on your sole say-so” — enshrined as norms, meaning that there’s some kind of leverage for change. Actually committing the crimes is bad enough, but publicly proclaiming them to be the right thing to do is an even more horrific crime, because it closes down the possibility that the crimes may end in the future.

We have a “natural experiment” before our eyes right now of how the “at least it’s out in the open” strategy worked with Bush and Obama — once moral norms are dethroned, it just leads to further degradation. I know that one might be uncomfortable with such slippery-slope arguments given how often they’re used by conservatives, but that really is how it works. We just happen to think the moral norms they lament weren’t truly moral in the first place — it’s good that we’re on a slippery slope toward greater freedom to divorce, greater acceptance of gays, etc. It’s not good that we’re on a slippery slope toward greater acceptance of torture and assassination. (I hope this isn’t too complicated for anyone.)

So in conclusion, if I had to choose between Obama having a top-secret kill list that he’d disavow in public and the current situation, I’d chose the top-secret kill list every time — because say what you will of hypocrisy, at least it leaves open the possibility of an ethos.

Derrida’s meta-ethics

It has been much remarked upon that Derrida turned to ethical concerns toward the end of his career. This turn is often invoked to push back against those who would view Derrida as a nihilist, etc. Yet it often escapes notice that Derrida is undertaking a kind of meta-ethics — investigating the grounds of possibility (and, since it’s Derrida, also of impossibility) of something like ethical responsibility. This meta-ethical ground would presumably underlie any stance or practice that could be recognized as ethical.

The problem I see with much of the reception of Derrida’s meta-ethical work is the desire that this meta-ethics could somehow directly and already be an ethics in itself. Indeed, taken in that way, it seems to be a particularly demanding ethics, one that puts all previous ethical systems to shame. The paradox, however, is that if the conditions of possibility and impossibility for ethics are already present in all ethical behavior and deliberation, it cannot be “difficult.” It’s just how things are.

Read the rest of this entry »

Religious but not spiritual

For years, I have been sarcastically reversing the popular claim that one is “spiritual but not religious,” instead declaring myself to be “religious but not spiritual.” As I’ve pondered this formula more, however, I have become increasingly convinced that this joke does contain a sincere grain of truth about the way I’d like to approach my life. I obviously don’t want to be “religious” in the sense of going to church every week, but that’s not all that’s at stake in “spiritual but not religious.” The “religious” is the formula, the ritual, the mediating institution that’s bigger than any individual — anything that’s not fully owned by the individual, anything that risks being an empty gesture. The “spiritual but not religious” person wants to cut past all the accumulation of tradition and habit and get straight to sincere spiritual experience.

My inspiration to write about this at long last comes from my reading of Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which seems to fit my current mood perfectly. In particular, this bit strikes me as true:

Behind the pseudo-democratic dismantling of ceremony, of old-fashioned courtesy, of the useless conversation suspected, not even unjustly, of being idle gossip, behind the seeming clarification and transparency of human relations that no longer admit anything undefined, naked brutality is ushered in. The direct statement without divagations, hestitations or reflections, that gives the other the facts full in the face, already has the form and timbre of the command issued under Fascism by the dumb to the silent. Matter-of-factness between people, doing away with all ideological ornamentation between them, has already itself become an ideology for treating people as things. (sec. 20)

Once the empty gestures of courtesy are swept away, we aren’t inducted into a new realm of sincere, unmediated human brotherhood — rather, we are left with nothing but the brutality of market relations. Similarly, once we get rid of “religion,” we’re left with nothing but prideful (and empty) speculations and a demand for the warm fuzzies we associate with spiritual ecstacy.

My main focus is not on the spirituality element, though, but on the element of ritual. Read the rest of this entry »

Against discursive utilitarianism

In discussions of all kinds, one frequently hears someone declare that there is no point in continuing the conversation, because their interlocutor will never be convinced. This sentiment can sometimes be a kind of short-hand for various understandable reasons to cut off a conversation — your interlocutor doesn’t seem to be taking you seriously, they are trying to catch you in a contradiction or otherwise make you look stupid, they are just trying to waste your time, they just want to repeat the well-worn formulas that for them count as “opinions” or “views,” etc. — but insofar as we take it literally, it is a terrible reason to stop conversing.

The point of a conversation is not to convince as many people as possible to adopt your viewpoint, nor indeed is it to find good replacements for one’s own views. We are, at least sometimes, rational beings, and as such, we have a duty to give reasons for what we say.

There are circumstances that supply a good excuse to shirk that duty, and we are of course free to shirk it arbitrarily if we so choose — no one has infinite time or patience, and sometimes the interlocutors who are genuinely asking in good faith and with an open mind are the most exhausting of all.

Yet it is never acceptable to cut off a conversation because you have determined that your interlocutor will never abandon their views and adopt yours. It is perfectly acceptable, again, to conclude that they’re not taking you seriously, that they are just waiting their turn to say the same things they would say no matter who they were talking to — or indeed that you’re simply getting bored. But if the only thing that keeps you from becoming bored with a conversation is the prospect of getting someone to abandon their own view and adopt yours, then you have failed as a human being in a fundamental way.

Posted in ethics. 4 Comments »

The simple believer

In comments to my post on literalism, Rob L. has been concerned with defending the existence of “literal” religious beliefs, as opposed to what he sees as the tendency of religion scholars to explain away seemingly simplistic views (such as the idea that the Virgin Mary is “really” up there in heaven listening to our prayers). He seems to worry that such a view is patronizing or disrespectful to the simple religious folk, but I’ve seen a similar strategy at work among New Atheists: when confronted with more sophisticated theological reasoning, they will claim that theologians aren’t representative and you have to look at the religious beliefs of the majority.

This overlap between a well-intentioned and hostile approach gives me pause. What I’d like to argue in this post is that literalism is an unacceptable and ultimately patronizing approach to the faith of the simple believer — we must side with approach of the religion scholar or the theologian to deal with religious beliefs responsibly.

Read the rest of this entry »

The financial passage à l’acte

Zizek has often said that the truly ethical act is one that changes the standards by which ethical acts are judged. On the face of it, it appears that the actions of the Too Big To Fail firms in the mortgage markets qualify — in the normal run of events, fraud on this scale should obviously be punished, but it has reached a point where applying the rules could trigger another financial crisis, thus causing massive human suffering. By flouting the law in such a systematic way, the banks have de facto rewritten the law for what counts as a valid transfer of a mortgage and put the public at large into a situation where we basically have to hope and pray they don’t get fully called out on it, since that would lead to another systemic collapse.

At the same time, Zizek would doubtless point out that this is the seemingly radical change that ensures that nothing changes — a pseudo-radical gesture that makes sure that society still is working to the advantage of the capitalist class, within which the financial sector now plays a hegemonic role in basically all developed nations.


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