postmodern ethics

Michael J. Salvo (
Fri, 25 Oct 1996 12:19:11 -0600

just when you thought it was dead ...

i wrote this post to a grad class list i'm on, in response to the accusation
that there is no ethics possible in a postmodern context. the quote i
include is another example of what i'd call "beauty" in theoretical langauge
in the plain style, but it also expresses something i feel in radically
obvious constructed situations: the responsibilty to interrogate assertions
and ideas, for indeed, everything is potentially dangerous.


>Date: Thu, 24 Oct 1996 00:10:50
>To: @style
>From: "Michael J. Salvo" <>
>Subject: postmodern ethics
>in class on tuesday, everyone got to see me fumble about trying to explain
the relationship between postmodernity and ethics. the relationship is
contrary to the popular media representation of deconstruction,
specifically, and a bit counter-intuitive, not to mention complex. chances
are i'll botch the explaination here as i did tuesday, but this position is
important enough for me to want to take another stab at it.
>the popular representation of deconstruction in particular and
postmodernity specifically is the nihilistic extreme one can put lyotard's
reference to the death (dearth?) of master narratives, those myths --
neither true nor false -- which we use to inform our everyday practice.
these, once gone, seem to pull the ontological rug out from under us.
indeed, Dada-ist art, the theater of the absurd, the work of baudrillard
come to mind. if there is no truth, why do i go on? what do i pursue if i
know (or believe) there will be no revelation?
>foucault, as expressed in rabinow's _Foucault Reader_, takes a much
different tactic. every ethical position has a history, an ideology, and an
epistemology. investigating, questioning, interrogating these aspects of
ethics is not only important but vitally necessary. we risk the continued
repetition of historical problems, we always do, and as Foucault phrases it,
everything is dangerous. he doesn't assert that everything is meaningless;
rather, he asserts that everything is a *danger*. left unexamined, the
dangers can be left unknown, mystified, undisturbed. so too, a postmodern
ethics will require grounding, but grounding in *what*, exactly? excuse
this long contextualizing quote:
>Q. And what will come next? Will there he more on the Chris- ians when you
finish these three?
>M.F. Well, I am going to take care of myself . . . I have more than a draft
of a book about sexual ethics in the sixteenth century, , in which also the
problem of the techniques of the self, self- lamination, the cure of souls,
is very important, both in the Protestant and Catholic churches.
>What strikes me is that in Greek ethics people were concerned with their
moral conduct, their ethics, their relations to selves and to others much
more than with religious problems. For instance, what happens to us after
death? What are the gods? Do they intervene or not?-these are very, very
un-important problems for them, and they are not directly related to ethics,
to conduct. The second thing is that ethics was not re1ated to any
social--or at least to any legal-institutional system. For instance, the
laws against sexual misbehavior were very few and not very compelling. The
third thing is that what they were worried about, their theme, was to
constitute a kind of ethics which was an aesthetics of existence.
>Well, I wonder if our problem nowadays is not, in a way, similar to this
one, since most of us no longer believe that ethics is founded in religion,
nor do we want a legal system to intervene in our moral, personal, private
life. Recent liberation movements suffer from the fact that they cannot find
any principle )n which to base the elaboration of a new ethics. They need an
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. I am struck by this similarity of problems.
>Q. Do you think that the Greeks offer an attractive and plausible alternative?
>M.F. No! I am not looking for an alternative; you can't find the solution
of a problem in the solution of another problem raised at another moment by
other people. You see, what I want to do is not the history of solutions,
and that's the reason why I don't accept the word alternative. I would like
to do the genealogy of problems, of *problematiques. My point is not that
everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly
the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something
to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic
>rabinow, paul. (ed) _The_Foucault_Reader_. Pantheon Books, New York.
1984. p.342-343
>forgive me for the frappe' of foucault and lyotard (that sounds vaguely
obscene), but in the postmodern condition, in which we have lost our master
tropes, religion being one and coherent unified nationalism being another,
what do we build an ethics upon? what *foundation* is free from the taint
of worldliness? none. and for foucault, that means that every assertion of
"truth" is also an assertion of ideology which needs to be interrogated:
> my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper-
> and pessimistic activism.
>apathy is *furthest* from the archeological move. the whole reason *for*
interrogation is the search for an ethics, for if our ethical system leads
to unethical ends (here i allude to the holocaust as an example of an ethic
in which the *end* overwhelmed any consideration of *means*) the *ethic*
wasn't worth all that much. but, simultaneous to interrogating what we
have, what we had, and what others had, it is not sufficent to "find" a
solution elsewhere and translate it into current context:
> I am not looking for an alternative; you can't
> find the solution of a problem in the solution
> of another problem raised at another moment by
> other people.
>perhaps what is most deisturbing is that we are taught history and cultural
change as it *already* happened, as a few historic figures did/did-not
create, cause, inspire change. he have here, now, a different sense. we
are in the flux. many theorists propose that we are at a moment of
constructing a post-history, a moment in which we will no longer define or
understand history as we have for the last 150-200 years or so (really --
it's only about that old!). others see the post-modern as the
transitionary, necessarily uneasy and distrurbing momentary flux from one
paradigm to the next. i'm not sure which one is happening, but while i
understand that all transitions are long and partial and widespread, there
are components of this transitionary moment which are being cast as
long-term conditions rather than choices.
>so, perhaps deluze and guitarri are frighteningly accurate when they
suggest a nomology, and perhaps lyotard's parology will become a
long-lasting alternative to logic and narrative. who knows?
>but in answering these questions, we will need to refer to our current
situation, a situation different from past contexts that refuses pat answers
or solutions built in other times and places to serve different goals. we
will need an ethics based not on belief but on shared values, that guards
against the misuse of power yet allows us freedoms not possible before
radical individualism, which also guard the body-politic. we haven't begun
to answer these questions, nor have we negotiated the rules of the game ...
we haven't even identified all the players in the game. indeed, we are just
beginning to form a language that comprehends the situation we find
ourselves in // the situation we have guilt around ourselves. we are the
>so, there's my stab at further explication of what i attempted tuesday.
thanks for reading this far if you were able. it's *my* attempt at plain
style, although i am curious to see what would happen if i tried to argue a
similar perspective from the middle register, or even from a high, grand style?