Tag Archives: ethics

manifestos 5: turning

1. First, a modest proposal. If we choose to name and claim an “age” or an “era” by calling it “ours,” let’s agree not to name it after the chief executive of one place among many places marked by boundaries that can be (and almost always are) contested. Naming “our” age for the chief executive of a place among places attributes more importance to the executive, our punctuations of time, and the temporary barriers we erect around territories we occupy (or in which we make scenes by pitching our tents) more authority than they merit. The barriers, the punctuations, and the executives are undoubtedly significant and have real impact on human beings and other living things (and social scientists spend a good deal of time identifying them and cataloging their effects while the people whose lives they impact spend a good deal of time struggling against them). But they are all made things (products, to a large extent, of language) that can be unmade (at least in part by language). It is unwise to feed the fire of a person who thinks himself or herself in charge in a place s/he thinks the center of the universe. That is to say that naming (or accepting the naming of) a place “the center” and designating a person as being in charge of the place moves the person to the center and gives him or her significant (in some cases, virtually unlimited) power.

2. If we choose to name and claim an “age” or an “era” by calling it “ours,” why not name it όχι and dedicate ourselves to making a world – personal and political – in which “no” means no?

3. This embraces elections as pivots on which ages may turn, but it also turns our attention first to an election in a part of the world (Greece, 2015) other than the United States. By extension, it very likely turns our attention to a sequence of elections that includes the so-called Brexit vote and the US presidential election in 2016 – and perhaps to the question of “election” itself. I suggest the name with Camus’ L’homme révolté in mind, both because it begins (before the beginning, in the introduction) with the uncertain frontier between “crimes of passion” and “crimes of logic” and because it begins with a definition of the human being in revolt: “Qu’est-ce qu’un homme révolté? Un homme qui dit non. Mais s’il refuse, il ne renonce pas: c’est aussi un homme qui dit oui, dès son premier mouvement.” Naming “our” age όχι identifies “us” with reference to negation that is not renunciation, and it identifies the “age” as a time and place defined by acts of negation that are not renunciations.

4. Suggesting the name, I am also mindful that 2017 is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, an invitation to scholarly debate (as indicated by Luther’s choice of language) that is often understood as a revolutionary act. This is interesting as an affirmation of the uncertain frontier between logic and passion (whether it is a matter of “crime” or not). Luther’s language is explicitly religious (hardly surprising for a professor of theology who was also a monk), as is the practice (the sale of indulgences) that he criticizes. But Luther’s invitation, like the practice he criticizes, is a matter of politics and economics as well as religion. The invitation lays the groundwork for Marx’s characterization of religion as the “aroma” of a distorted state (and that characterization could well be understood as a scholarly response to the invitation to scholarly debate). The frontier of an open-ended invitation to debate is uncertain, and that means the debate goes on.

5. The starting point is of particular interest in our age of όχι. Luther notes that the call to repentance with which the Gospel begins means that our entire life should be one of repentance. That Luther posted a set of theses in Latin as an invitation to scholarly debate suggests that he had in mind a small circle of scholars (students and teachers) at a small university in the small German city of Wittenberg. But it is also reasonable to assume that the “our” he had in mind reached beyond the small circle of scholars at the university where he taught to encompass the Christian community of Wittenberg. In the early sixteenth century in Germany, it is difficult (if not impossible) to disentangle that community from the civil community. Religion – the aroma of a distorted state – is everywhere in that state. Because the criticism is directed at a practice authorized by the Pope at least in part as a way to fund a building project in Rome, the circle is still wider. And this matter of religious practice is a matter of economics as well as political tension between the local and the global. Luther protested that he didn’t intend the theses for a large audience, but it is unlikely that he was oblivious to the potential for such an audience. And I find it difficult to believe that this was an attempt to internalize sin as has sometimes been claimed. It looks to me more like a critique of religion that is a critique of the distorted state of which religion is the aroma.

6. It turns on repentance, which is to say that it turns on turning.

7. Not the turn, the turning. This is my reading of Luther’s first thesis: we are called not just to turn but to keep on turning. And that is an affirmation of the power of negative thinking.

8. It is the no, here and now, that keeps us turning – in every here and now. The default position for citizens is resistance, and this is because our being citizens is a matter of our being political animals. It is not something that is granted to (some of) us by powers that be. It is who we are, and that defines how we always stand vis-à-vis power (which, as Foucault noted, comes from everywhere).

9. Luther’s first thesis grows directly out of what he reads as decisive (and determinative) good news. This is my reading of that news: “God’s presence is so close you can touch it now. Now, turn and act as though you believe this.” This claim (and the imperative that follows) is made in the context of an aniconic tradition that sees God by negation – so it is consistent to argue that the presence of this negative, the presence of this absence, drives our action vis-à-vis powers and principalities – which, as an earlier interpreter of that good news insisted, are what we struggle against.

©Steven Schroeder

manifestos 4: a work of the hands

Don Ihde maps language as a process that begins in sound and moves through music to spoken and written word to silence. Sonically, we first encounter language as music and arrive gradually at word; through word, we arrive gradually at silence. Visually, we arrive by the same route at emptiness. Rather than beginning with silence and filling it with sound – or beginning with an empty page and filling it with writing, we begin with a world that is full and press toward emptying it. In a world of words to the end of it, we make our way toward silence through sound.

In its subtle rejoinder to Adorno, for whom music, though like language, is not language, Ihde’s sketch proposes a relationship between word and music, word and silence, in which there is no outside for human being vis-a-vis language: we may speak or write of language as though from outside; but in so doing we speak or write in language. If we try to step out, language comes with us.

This turns on pressing from music through word toward silence, which, following Paul Friedrich, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Blake, I associate with imagination. Imagination plays through word in two directions, from music toward silence and from silence toward music. The play is a tension that, as in Peirce’s explication of the sign, means a world experienced as an external force and a mind pushing back against it. More properly, what is experienced is tension between two forces. Both are internal to the tension, and neither is independent of the other: there is no experience that is not in medias res, no world that does not contain experience.

In the direction of Ihde’s analysis, children enter the world through a wall of sound, which they experience first as music. And this is the experience of anyone who is a child vis-a-vis language, regardless of age: when we encounter language we do not understand, we can hear its music long before we can decode meanings it might contain. In this direction, as we come to understand, we leave the music of the language behind and push toward a limit, silence, that is presumably opposite. But both are always present: edges give shape to centers, meaning that word emerges in interplay of music and silence.

Friedrich reminds us that poetry is language that calls attention to its own form and that all language is poetic. All language calls attention to its own form; and its form is determined by the place it occupies between music and silence. This is Stevens’s poem of the mind in the act of finding, the poem of the act of the mind. It is metaphor at work, and, as both Percy and Lakoff have argued, it invariably involves saying one thing while meaning another. Though it is saying, it is not, strictly speaking, about language. It is a cognitive function making use of language (the ultimate artifact, as Andy Clark puts it), particularly concerned with mapping. As such, it is a matter of making our way.

I am concerned with poetry as manual labor (to borrow an image from Thoreau by way of Stanley Cavell), a work of the hands that makes a space in which human being can dwell, finds a way in the process of making it.

“Finding a way in the process of making it” resonates with a number of religious traditions, including Christianity and Daoism, and is an important basis from which to consider ethics and literature, particularly poetry. As a work of the hands that makes a space in which human being can dwell, poetry is more than a “container” for ethics understood as a doctrinal system. It is more properly a locus in which ethics takes place, an ethos in its original sense as a dwelling place for animals. As the close connection between Aristotle’s ethics and his poetics (and between both and his politics) suggests, the constructive process, the praxis, of poetry is potentially a source of insight into the construction of character. More to the point, it is a construction of character that, by making a space in which human being can dwell, is the making of a city – the architectonic art, politics – within which ethics is to be understood.

©Steven Schroeder