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Ethics and Bare Life; Another Aporia of Modern Democracy

Ethics and Bare Life; Another Aporia of Modern Democracy

Ethics and Bare Life; Another Aporia of Modern Democracy

Ethics, according to Emmanuel Levinas, is the first philosophy, elevated above ontology or epistemology. On Levinas’s view, as nicely summarized by Hillary Putnam, the fundamental ethical obligation is to become response-able (responsible) for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. Ethical behavior is fundamentally interpersonal, non-judgmental, face-to-face and established without external imperatives. Bare life, according to the view of Giorgio Agamben, focuses on the excluded, the marginalized, the non-members of society who, through external imperatives by a governing authority are disenfranchised, separated from and isolated from the rest of normative society. Bare life is externally mandated by the sovereign power to eek out an apartheid existence. Sometimes, the isolation is limited applying to a single aspect of life, for example, an unwarranted fear of the other because of skin color, religious beliefs (or non-beliefs), sexual orientation, social class (yes we have social classes in the United States that are not formal but that, nevertheless, exist), politics, or other generalized group membership. We also have examples where bare life, because of a vacuum in political opposition and a well-organized bureaucracy, takes bare life to unthinkable limits where genocide is a political function of the government and is carried out in exquisitely efficient ways so well described by Zygmunt Bauman.

The aporia, the double bind is that of self-directed ethics motivated by the interiority of the self to extend outward to the exteriority and absolute uniqueness of the other and the authoritative imperative motivated by the exteriority of the other and extended inward to invade the interiority of the self in an attempt to reduce the individual into the same, to homogenize the external world into a flat, featureless normality while excluding the uniqueness of the self. Linguistically we might think in terms of the oppositions of diversity/uniformity as representative of the aporia of modernity.

The double bind that is at work here is that one must engage in both worlds, one may choose an ethical stance even in the most horrific exercise of the authority of the sovereign, the one standing outside (not above) the law or one may choose the uniformity of enforcement of separation and isolation. There are, for example, countless stories of people choosing ethics over authority in the death camps of Nazi Germany (read the works of Primo Levy for a few examples). There are examples of those feigning uniformity who, rather than comply, chose to practice an ethical life (think of Schindler’s List as a prime example). And there are also those choosing to comply, even among the victims of the unimaginable homogenization of the death camps (those Jews who chose to do the work of their Nazi guards, to cooperate with their enemy if only to stave off the inevitable for themselves).

While these are extreme examples, we can see the same thing happening in modern democratic societies where the aim of exclusion is not as well defined nor is it as final as the consequences of the Shoah (the Holocaust). Police acting to curb protests, where the police are literally the uniform(ed) arm of the sovereign power, even while the police belong to the same class as those protesting. We see the leaders of religious institutions arguing for the exclusion of others who do not believe in the same specific tenants as they and it is all done in the name of their God or gods while their congregants uniformly accept the preachings of the hate mongers. I witness teachers willingly entering the classroom with the idea of creating a climate of compliance among their students in order to infuse the desire to score well on an imposed standardized test.

In the final analysis, however, the choice of the fundamental ethical obligation trumps uniformity, although that choice is always more dangerous than the choice of compliance, of sinking into the plain vanilla of uniformity. In making the ethical choice, one must constantly confront one’s taken-for-granteds, one’s prejudices and one’s biases in favor of the admission of bias and working to embrace that which one finds different. I recall a personal story as an example here. I was called for jury duty and while my panel was being questioned, one of the attorneys doing the questioning asked something like, ‘Is there anyone who cannot set aside their personal bias and examine the evidence presented to come to a verdict based solely on the evidence presented?’ I found the question a bit strange. I raised my hand and asked. ‘What do you mean by setting aside personal bias?’ The attorney responded, ‘That your verdict be based solely on the evidence presented and that you leave your personal beliefs at home.’ I responded, ‘Then I would have to answer that I cannot set my personal beliefs or bias aside but could only examine evidence in the context of those beliefs. I cannot simply turn off my bias and sink into a uniformity of fair-arbiter. I can listen to all the evidence but I cannot evaluate that evidence unless I evaluate it in light of my core ethical obligations.’ The judge dismissed me from the panel. In order to embrace the other’s diversity, one must also embrace one’s own values as uniquely their own.

The point of this ramble is that the line between diversity/uniformity is one in which we all find ourselves from time to time. The forces of the ethical self are at odds with the forces of uniformity and compliance.


Modern Democracy and Bare Life

Modern democracy’s specific aporia: it wants to put the freedom and happiness of men into play in the very place – “bare life” – that marked their subjugation…Today politics knows no value (and, consequently, no nonvalue) other than life, and until the contradictions that this fact implies are dissolved, Nazism and fascism – which transformed the decision on bare life into the supreme political principle – will remain stubbornly with us.

Giorgio Agamben

Modern Democracy and Bare Life

Modern Democracy and Bare Life

For the past few days I wrote about things that have no apparent connection to my prostate cancer battle. This is attributable to two factors. First, my highly successful robotic radical prostatectomy along with the fact that there was no metastasis to either the lymph nodes or the bone makes any further therapy moot unless, of course, the cancer returns. Secondly, the bout with prostate cancer allowed me to focus on things that I find important, to reflect on my life past and my life connecting me to the absolute infinity of death. It is the latter I wish to concentrate on for the time being. Of course, there are side-effects to the surgery that are troublesome and I’ll surely write about those; for now, I want to concentrate on the ethics of the fundamental ethical obligation and the implications attached to following a life connected to being of service for others.

So today, I take up the banner of ethics and ‘bare life.’ First, I think it wise to define the notion of ‘bare life’ in Agamben’s terms. In modern democracies, human beings are no longer considered the object of political power, rather, they become the subject of that political power. The sovereign, the governing authority, establishes rules for belonging to and being excluded from the body politic. While these are two extremes on a continuum (there are degrees of exclusion), it is important that one understands that even in nuanced layers of belonging, a form of marginalization, the one excluded by decree is absolutely marginalized, there is no nuance about it. To be excluded by decree is not unique to the Jews of Nazi Germany; right here in the United States groups are and have been historically excluded from the body politic. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” was a phrase that ruled Westward expansion in the 19th century. Slaves, excluded by law, were nuanced for political purposes becoming three-fifths of a person for the purpose of the census, thereby adding political power to slave holding states. Even today, political arguments abound about what to do with undocumented foreign nationals in the United States. Proposals range from deportation to amnesty as a road to citizenship and the debate is heated, often turning ugly.

It is easy to think one is safe when belonging is taken for granted but everything can turn based on a political decree. Jacques Derrida, in The Monlingualism of the Other, makes a bold claim when he writes, “I only have one language: it is not mine.” Born to a Jewish family in French occupied Algeria, Derrida speaks French as his first language. He is, in fact, not monolingual because he also speaks English, yet his first language is the one he feels most comfortable with. In the book he writes about the fragility of citizenship embedded in his own experience of going to school one day as a French citizen; upon returning home, however, he no longer was a Frenchman, rather he was a Jew in Vichy France with no rights or obligations to the state. Full and complete exclusion by decree; no longer able to go to school, participate in activities with other children he was friendly with; the devastation of the bare life of exclusion by fiat is difficult. Then, as suddenly as he was deprived of his status as a French citizen, that citizenship was reinstated without fanfare, rather, by the decree of the governing authority to which Derrida now owed allegiance. Derrida questions what it really means to be a citizen, how citizenship is earned and, because it is so fragile, how it is not easily defined.

In modern democracies the governing authority surrenders much of its power to the bureaucracy upon which it depends to administer the legitimate and illegitimate decrees and laws of the state. Without the bureaucracy, the state simply cannot function. Yet it is this very apparatus, fully removed from the sunshine of accountability that the forces of exclusion operate without regard to those who are marginalized or fully excluded from society. The bureaucracy is amoral, functioning without ethical values, being accountable, from the lowest clerk to the highest official, only to the level of supervision one grade ahead of one’s station. This practice makes bureaucratic decisions that are geared at protecting the job rather than protecting the social order. The amoral begins here, subject to nothing more than the drive for efficiency and economy. Wrong-headed decisions are difficult to overturn thereby allowing the process of continuing down a road to self-destruction.

This brief essay presents an outline of the failings of the late modern democracies. Yet, unlike the angst of the existentialists, who preached the idea of personal responsibility, of integrity if you will, because the world is absurd, some post-modernists, especially Levinas, sees hope in the very notion of responsibility. Levinas’s fundamental ethical obligation is an act of responsibility and integrity involving the self to be responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation and without the expectation of reciprocation. This dyad, the face-to-face that is required of the self and the other, is the foundation of ethics without ontology, morals without having to address notions of being. The fact that I exist is proof enough that I exist. The fact that the material world exists and that I can interact with the objects of the material world is proof enough for the existence of the material world. The fact that there is an Absolute Infinity that I will, of necessity, transition into is proof enough that there is an unknowable eternity awaiting me, an Absolute Other that I can only approximate by and through my social relationships with the other in this world.

Modernity and Ethical Engagement

Modernity and Ethical Engagement

Modernity and Ethical Engagement

Clearly one of my most sacred concerns is the idea that ethics precedes ontology, that moral behavior is more important than the quest for understanding of what it means to be. I learn this from Emmanuel Levinas who measures what it means to be as an encounter with the other, a face-to-face simulacrum of the Absolute (unknowable) Other. This fundamental ethical obligation, the duty to be responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation is the foundational aspect of Levinasian ethics. While this formula holds for dyadic encounters, it fails to respond to Levinas’s greatest fear: the reduction of the self into the same, a reduction to the universal, the politically defined normative behavior expected of good citizens. While it is difficult for reduction to occur during face-to-face engagement, it is likely to occur in situations of mass audiences, of entire populations. Two philosophers take this into account as they describe the process of reduction of the self into the same, Giorgio Agamben and Zygmunt Bauman.

Both Agamben and Bauman find the bureaucratic dependence of Modernity to be the focus of the process of reduction. Agamben, quoting Foucault, writes, “For the first time in history, the possibilities of the social sciences are made known, and at once it becomes possible to both protect life and to authorize a holocaust.” Agamben’s argument is that the rise of Modernity as depicted by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, coupled with the rise of Mercantilism followed by the ubiquity of Capitalism, created conditions for the state to define what normal would look like, to define what it means to belong to or be labeled apart from the body politic of the state itself. Bauman goes a step further by suggesting that the real culprit is not only Modernity and the idea of the social contract along with the rise of Capitalism, but it lies in the administration of Capitalism through the bureaucratic apparatus that manages the entire system, creates the regulations for and thereby defines belonging. The bureaucrat as defined by Weber lies at the heart of the reduction to normalcy yet this bureaucrat is anonymous, representing only his or her direct superior, knowing only what is needed to perform the job asked of him or her efficiently and economically.

Bauman carefully analyzes the potential of the functioning bureaucracy operating in Nazi Germany arguing that the Nazis took advantage of the already efficient German bureaucracy by infusing a singleness of purpose and then by defining what it meant to be German and what it meant to be other (than German). Then the Nazi power structure simply allowed the bureaucracy to find the most economical and efficient process for eliminating those who were other, those who were not Germans and must be isolated and later eliminated from Germany and existence altogether. While Capitalism played a role, if anything, that role was to create a private sector bureaucracy to run the economic powerhouse that was German industry. The same could be said for the rise of public bureaucracy in the 18th and 19th centuries; growing out of a need for efficiency and economy in providing for the welfare of the population within its borders, the state bureaucracies learned how to be efficient through a model of normative behaviors.

In our own postmodern era, Bauman suggests, it is the obligation of the self to break these ties to what is or is not normal. By seeking out others of like minds, one is able to better address the failings of the bureaucratic malaise that defines just who belongs and who does not. In fact, what he is suggesting is that we examine the taken-for-granteds that define what it means to be a normative member of society; to explore what it means for the state to define some people as less than and, therefore, are defined out of the mainstream, held hostage in poverty, in prison, or institutionalized; by exploring these taken-for-granteds, Bauman suggests, that the grip of the bureaucracy may be broken and a new, more moral, structure may emerge. In brief, Bauman, heavily influenced by Levinas, is arguing for a society in which the dyad of the face-to-face expands into something where whole groups can engage in the fundamental ethical obligation without reservation or expectation of reciprocation.

Part of the Bauman approach is that diversity, the absolute uniqueness of the other (human being or human beings as a class), must be embraced without reservation. In short, what is good for one is good for all with the caveat that each individual within the larger social order be treated fairly and not equally. Equality simply levels the playing field allowing those who are clearly advantaged rise to the top at the expense of those disadvantaged human beings. Advantage and disadvantage, normative and abnormal, are definitions enforced by bureaucratic intervention. Being treated fairly, on the other hand, is a process whereby we all cooperate as an ethical political unit and care for the disadvantaged among us in order to help them gain an advantage to compete. By embracing diversity, by truly understanding that each human being on this planet is unique, with hopes and desires, with dreams to fulfill, and that uniqueness include the self, you and I, for without including the ‘I’ in the mix of diversity it is too easy to think that everyone else is (or should be) just like me. What a boring world that would be (already is).

Communal ethics is not out of our reach as a species. It begins with eschewing selfishness and embracing the other without reservation.

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