Thursday, February 07, 2013

something is rotten

For [Adorno], the question of how to live a good life in a bad life, how to persist subjectively in a good life when the world is poorly organized, is but a different way of claiming that moral worth cannot be considered apart from its conditions and consequences. In his words, "anything that we can call morality today merges into the question of the organization of the world. We might even say that the quest for the good life is the quest for the right form of politics, if indeed such a right form of politics lay within the realm of what can be achieved today." -- Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, p. 133
Butler states the fairly obvious connection between Adorno and Foucault to what she calls "the critical tradition," meaning the tradition skeptical of Enlightenment conceptions of Reason as ultimate principle and savior of subjective agency, responsibility, universal morality, and political ends. I like very much the phrase "how to live a good life in a bad life," because of its simplistic expression of a basic urge of "the critical tradition," namely, that ethical reflection begins with the intuition that something is wrong.

I spend a lot of time and energy focused on what is wrong. From my standpoint, there appears to be a lot that is wrong: social inequity and discrimination, exploitation, hypocrisy, domination of individuals, the public, and the polity by extremely wealthy people, etc. This is not a pretty world.

One could chalk this tendency up to a reactive habit of anxiety instilled prior to any memory. This would be dismissive and reductive. I would not deny that a pre-reflective and pre-rational outlook on the world subtends every observation and interpretation we each make. There are, on the other hand, objectivities to observe. Ultimately, I think it's futile to try to separate and correct completely for the pre-thetic sensibilities through which we observe the world.

Besides, such a reductive view would miss a fundamental point. To the extent that my habitual self is pre-thetically oriented toward the world as "poorly organized," that orientation is the condition of my habitus (the condition that subjected me to the "bad life"), and thus of my having any moral outlook whatsoever. The world I find myself always to have inhabited is "poorly organized."

The ethical question is not about assigning blame for this "bad life;" neither is it about my responsibility for fixing it (which would seem to be both an impossible task and a performative contradiction, if you dig that). By "right form of politics," Adorno can't mean that those in this situation know precisely what is wrong and how to fix it, because that isn't politics at all, but the dissolution of politics. Politics would be, instead, the ethical discourse concerning how worlds can and ought to be organized, and how subjects in those worlds could act ethically and responsibly in them.

The critical approach thus asserts that the world and ourselves are out of joint, that ethics and ethical responsibility for an individual do not gear into the world as presently constructed. The task of ethics is not to make the world conform to my subjective conception of what is right, nor to make my subjective conception conform to the world as I find it. The task is to respond to that condition of being out-of-joint.

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