Re: Poststructuralism and Ethics

On Jan 15, 11:16pm, Bryan Palmer wrote:
> Subject: Poststructuralism and Ethics
> I have been wrestling with poststructuralist modes of thinking for some
> time. The conclusion I have been coming to is that poststructuarism is
> very powerful and yet impotent. It is powerful in terms of the insights it
> can reveal about social practices and beliefs and the relationship between
> power and knowledge. It is impotent to suggest alternatives or to evaluate
> the ethics of alternatives. (Ethics, that is what is
> righ/wrong/good/bad/valuable/etc. are after all nothing more than socially
> constructed "truths").
> I find the notion that there are no absuloute truths, and that what we call
> truth is socially constructed to be very compelling. I also find the
> concept of discursive formation, and the concept of power/knowledge to be
> very powerful.
> My diffiuclty is the way in which (for example) feminist
> use these methods of analysis to argue for a course of action or some other
> outcome. Indeed, most of the poststructuralists I have read seem to argue
> the case of a group who are disadvantaged across an axis of inequality. Be
> that axis gender, race, class, diability, the criminal justice system,
> institutions, etc. In all these cases, it would appear that
> poststructuralist authors assert that equality is a larger truth, or a goal
> that society should pursue. Yet, this goal of equality is never justified
> (and as far as I can tell, cannot be justified) within the
> paradigm.
> To complicate my dilemma, most poststructuralists set them selves against
> the enlightenment, liberal pluralism and an atomist view of society.
> However, almost every poststructuralist critique I have read have used
> deconstruction, or an analysis of discursive processes to argue action or
> change for a disadvantaged group. Yet within the poststructuralist
> paradigm, the notion of disadvantage is socially constructed; and the
> processes of discursive formation adopted/employed by the empowered group
> are no less right/wrong/good/bad than the processes adopted by the
> disempowered group. It simply is.
> Indeed,I could argue that I have never read a true poststructuralist
> analysis. They all appear to begin with and return to modernism and the
> enlightenment. Postructuralism, is simply a convenient arguement used to
> justify some preconceived view of reality, human rights, social justice,
> I would be appreciative if some one could point me to a compelling
> reconciliation of ethics and poststructuralism. Thanks.
> _______________________________________________________________
> Bryan Palmer
> bpalmer@xxxxxxxxxxx
> Canberra - Australia's National Capital
>-- End of excerpt from Bryan Palmer

How about John Rajchman's *Truth and Eros*?

While I agree with your critique of the movement from the *is* to the *ought*
in some self-professed poststructural work, I think that the questions you
raise as to the relationship between ethics and poststructuralism cannot be
addressed simply through reference to such work. I think that the question of
ethics in poststructuralism can be viewed as being quite complex and,
although it develops with relation to truth as a socio-cultural produc that
is continually being remade, it is not limited to truth-formations and our
relationships to them. I will turn to Foucault's later work to flesh this
idea out a bit.
Speaking of the relation that his last works on ethics bear to
contemporary contexts, Foucault says in the interview "On the Genealogy of
Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress":

I wonder if our problem nowadays is not, in a way, similar to this one [the
one addressed in The Use of Pleasure and the Care of the Self], since most of
us not longer believe that ethics is founded on religion, nore do we want a
legal system to intervene in our moral, personal, private life. Recent
liberation movements suffer form the fact that they cannot find any principle
on which to base the elaboration of a new ethics. They need a new ethics, but
they cannot find any other ethics than an ethics founded on so-called
scientific knowledge of what the self is, what desire is, what the
unconscious is, and so on.

This concern with the creations of a new ethics is similar to that expressed
in ancient Greek writing in order to "constitute a kind of ethics which was
an aesthetics of existence." In contemporary contexts, however, the creation
of an aesthetics of existence is far too dependent on discourses which point
either to the impossibility of recognizing the subject as a unity, or
discourses which find their focus in an ascetics of subjectivity. No longer
able to refer to religion, nor willing to call upon the legal system to
define the boundaries of such an ethics, Foucault suggests, contemporary
liberation movements, such as feminism, find themselves at a loss for the
material from which such an ethics could be moulded.
While Foucault claims "you can't find the solution of a problem in
the solution of another problem raised in another moment by another people,"
he does present the Greek and Roman efforts in the work of self on self to
open up the field of possibility for contemporary efforts insofar as these
problematizations of an aesthetics of the self took place without reference
to either religious doctrine or an over-arching juridico-legal apparatus. The
recognition that not everything is "bad"but that "everything is
dangerous"leds Foucault's work into a problematization of the limits and
possibilities of ethics as a creative force in the comportment of the self
toward and self and toward others. In Foucault's words: "What I want to ask
is: Are we able to have an ethics of acts and their pleasures which would be
able to take into account the pleasure of the other? Is the pleasure of the
other something which can be integrated into our pleasure, without reference
either to law, to marriage, to I dont know what?"

And so.... If we consider ethics to be the work of self on self, and the self
to be something that is directed toward others, then how does this change our
notions and assumptions about what ethics *is* and what it *ought* to do?
What fields of possibility does this conception of ethics foreclose to and
disclose from thought and action? Is critique enough?

Hope this is in some way helpful...

Penelope Ironstone-Catterall
York University School of Social & Political Thought


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