“Building a hedge around the law” in contemporary sexual ethics

This Jezebel piece by Jia Tolentino on David Bowie’s sexual encounters with underage girls is a fully considered, nuanced discussion of a complex issue. On the one hand, Tolentino takes Lori Maddox’s account of the incident seriously and respects the fact that she doesn’t understand it as rape, but on the other hand, she is clearly glad that social mores have changed such that a similar situation would definitely be condemned by mainstream culture today. And a big part of the shift in sexual ethics is a direct reaction to the simplistic and destructive reception of the “sexual revolution” that knocked down the existing sexual regulations — which really were restrictive and worthy of being knocked down — but left the gender hierarchy and its attendant power dynamics in place. The author quotes Rebecca Solnit:

The culture was sort of snickeringly approving of the pursuit of underage girls (and the illegal argument doesn’t carry that much weight; smoking pot is also illegal; it’s about the immorality of power imbalance and rape culture). It was completely normalized. Like child marriage in some times and places. Which doesn’t make it okay, but means that, unlike a man engaged in the pursuit of a minor today, there was virtually no discourse about why this might be wrong. It’s also the context for what’s widely regarded as the anti-sex feminism of the 1980s: those women were finally formulating a post-sexual-revolution ideology of sex as another arena of power and power as liable to be abused; we owe them so much.

In discussions of contemporary sexual ethics, a lot of focus lands on the question of “consent,” and there is considerable anxiety about losing the spontaneity of authentic sexuality amid all the bureaucratic red tape (or something). This article reminds us that a lot of what might have seemed like spontaneity was deeply conditioned by power relations of which the participants were not fully aware (though we have to assume that an adult man like David Bowie was, or should have been, more aware of them than a star-struck 15-year-old).

The emphasis on explicit consent has to be situated in a larger concern to eliminate borderline situations where power dynamics can creep in unannounced. Read the rest of this entry »

The Hypocrisy of Christianity: Or, “I’m not perfect, just forgiven”

Christianity promotes an extremely demanding ethic in principle. The problem is that it also provides unlimited, unconditional forgiveness for failing to live up to that ethic.

The history of mainstream Christianity is the story of embracing the latter principle until the former is a vestigial organ. The end result is a situation like today, where conservative Christians never see a “necessary evil” they don’t love.

It’s more complicated than pointing out Bible verses. Conservative Christians are not being “hypocritical” by failing to live up to the challenging ethical teachings — hypocrisy *is* the ethic of mainstream Christianity.

Hence the scorn that conservative Christians reserve for those naive fools who think we’re supposed to live according to Jesus’ teachings. If you quote a liberal-sounding Bible verse at them, that just shows you’re not in on the joke.

Weaponized ideals and ethical profiling

High ethical standards initially seem to be a good thing. Even if we cannot always live up to them, there is value in recognizing and enshrining an ideal. At the same time, ethical standards are not used solely as an object for aspiration. They are also used as a basis for judgment. And that leaves room for high ideals to be weaponized.

The way this works is analogous to racial profiling. For instance, it is well known that in the United States, virtually every driver exceeds the speed limit. Indeed, following the speed limit can often create a dangerous situation. Nevertheless, the police still enforce this ultimately unenforceable law, and when they do so, they tend to pick out members of groups who already receive disproportionate police attention, namely people of color. In the same way, when we’re dealing with an impossible ethical ideal, those who are judged or punished for not following it will often be selected from disadvantaged groups — a phenomenon we can call “ethical profiling.”

This happens most of all when the high ideal is extremely abstract. For instance, we are told that it is ethically most salutary to be non-violent. Though violence may be sadly necessary under certain circumstances, we should aspire to avoid it to the extent possible. In the world as we know it, however, avoiding it completely is often utterly impossible — particularly when “violence” can be so broadly defined as to include property damage, or impeding the normal run of things, or speaking too harshly. Everyone is violating the ideal in some way or other, but only the protestors (by definition a less powerful group than the powers that be) are judged for doing so. This effect is of course amplified when the protestors are black.

We might also think of the demand to cherish every “life” to the fullest possible extent. Really following this demand would require changing literally everything we do every day, even if we’re only limiting ourselves to human lives. Once again, it is an impossible demand, and once again, only the most vulnerable — women with unexpected or unwanted pregnancies — are expected to follow through on it. The ethic of life is weaponized in the service of ensuring women’s subordination and punishing their sexual expression.

None of this is to say that there aren’t people who don’t sincerely hold the ideals in question. For a select few, aspiring to a high ethical ideal becomes a true vocation to which they dedicate their whole selves. The problem arises when the unique achievements of these ethical heroes become a weapon of the powerful — for instance, when the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., is weaponized to shame and denigrate the contemporary black community, or when the heroic voluntary self-sacrifice of Christ is imposed as a baseline expectation on women and the poor. In such cases, we’re dealing less with mere hypocrisy than with something like blasphemy.

Posted in ethics, feminism, politics, race. Comments Off on Weaponized ideals and ethical profiling

“At least I’m honest”

“Sure, I have racist thoughts. I’ve crossed the street to avoid a black man sometimes, but only at night. I mean, at least I’m honest about it, though, right?”

“I have had a lot of bad experiences with women, and yes, I’m resentful about it. It colors how I treat the women I meet. Even though I know in my head that it doesn’t make sense, in my gut I feel like every woman I date owes me sex on behalf of all those other bitches who teased me and left me high and dry. But hey, at least I’m honest!”

“Can I just say that for me, family life was always just an obligation? I mean, yeah, I care about my wife and kids, but what’s really important to me is my work. I wish we could just be honest about it — I’ll give them money if they leave me alone.”

I don’t think that any of us would say that statements like this represent important ethical achievements. Even in their own wording, they openly admit that they’re doing the very minimum — more honesty! Yet the “at least” may already be an overestimate: who would claim that unethical behavior suddenly becomes ethical when it is openly engaged in?

In reality, the “at least I’m honest” gesture is a foreclosure of ethics, a short-circuit by which being true to one’s own authentic shittiness becomes an ethical obligation in itself. It is the last stillborn offspring of the Christian critique of hypocrisy — a critique that was originally intended to shame people into living up to their stated ethical ideals, much as Christian confession (“being honest with yourself”) was a first step toward ethical transformation and made no sense outside of a process of conversion. In the “at least I’m honest” worldview, by contrast, ethical aspiration as such is already the hypocrisy that must be rooted out, and the only possible outcome of confessing one’s shittiness is to remain authentically, honestly shitty.

In response to this radically self-serving post-ethical stance, all we can do is require people to stop being so damn honest and start being as hypocritical as possible — because say what you will of hypocrisy, at least it maintains the possibility of an ethos.

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

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 »

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