Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

A prescription for description? Some concluding thoughts…

The conclusion of my last post was totally dodgy, for which I apologize, but blogging is all about thinking in public so this time I’ll shoot for something slightly more articulate. I left off with this tantalizing and mildly idiotic gem: “I think maybe what I’m trying to suggest is that these unchosen alliances present us with a kind of post-ethical problem.” What does post-ethical even mean? Nothing, that’s what. So here’s take two.

At first I was a little thrown by Butler’s vocabulary. Did we really hear the same person who refused recognition in Berlin, who seems to carefully curate her alliances, advocate unchosen alliances? But here I think I was hearing “unchosen” in a different way than Butler intends it. Her use is limited to the fact that the world as it exists and is populated is unchosen by any one person or group, and no one has the right to deny existence to anyone else. The principle of equality implicitly emerges from this flat ontology of unchosen existence. We dip into beautiful Enlightenment political theory for a moment: No one has the right to deny rights unless the rights in question impinge on the rights of others. And then we fall out of grace.

What happens when competing ethical frameworks produce disagreement on the very question of what constitutes justice, harm, or a right? Butler has actually addressed this problem in her essay in Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech (a fantastic, thought-provoking book that anyone interested in politics, religion, or representation should read) and it’s clear that there are no easy answers to a question that marks something akin to the shift from classical/Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics. We’re beginning to realize that justice behaves like both a wave and a particle, that injury is both dead and alive inside that box. Political theory is slowly shifting from a deterministic model to a probabilistic one. (For more on this check out The Immanent Frame)

Let’s take the recent elections in Egypt as an example. Theocratic political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Nour Party together received about 65% of the votes in the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections, a fact that has prompted musings on whether such political groups can or will actually do anything about the issues, largely economic, that prompted the revolution in the first place. In the days leading up to the elections, more pro-democracy oriented protesters reoccupied Tahrir Square in an attempt to call attention to the fact that the military has increased its already considerable power in the wake of the revolution. It’s easy to see how these groups have diverged, but it’s still hard to understand exactly what brought them together. Both of these groups were occupying Tahrir Square in an unchosen alliance (albeit a much higher level one than the fundamental human condition Butler discusses): they have quite different long-term goals for the country. One could argue that it was corruption in the Egyptian government that produced these unexpected allies, although I think multinational corporations and NGO’s played an equally, if not more, important role in producing a network of economic exchanges that both systematically excluded Egyptians and inspired them to seek admission to such networks at any cost. In this sense, the different groups that rallied to bring down Mubarak were actually responding to things bigger than Mubarak, perhaps bigger than they themselves could even perceive.

But it’s important to note that these larger institutions did not intend to produce a revolution in Egypt. Most were simply serving their own interests. Some were actually dependent on the status quo, fearful that any change in Egypt would have direct or indirect consequences for their ability to function (here I’m thinking of all of the diverse and sundry nations, corporations, and NGO’s invested in the Middle East peace process). As corporations are acquiring rights traditionally associated with individual subjects this all becomes so much more complicated. So I’m interested in how Butler’s intensely personal, one might even say individualistic, approach to an Ethics of Cohabitation could play out in the context of these corporate and non-governmental assemblages.

Finally I wonder about the place of Ethics in philosophy. Is it perhaps a fossil in an age when most approaches to the thoughtful consideration of human behavior have shifted from prescriptive to descriptive models? If conscious will is an illusion, could it all just be so much rationalization of our actions after the fact, and what do we gain from (or lose) with such rationalization?

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