Re: postmodern ethics

Johanna Schmertz (johanna@HUNTER1.COM)
Sun, 27 Oct 1996 06:06:09 -0600

I'm Johanna Schmertz, and I'm new to the list.
Enjoyed your post on postmodern ethics, Mike.
A few days ago a fellow department member presented a paper to
faculty members from other disciplines on the possibility of an ethical
postmodern subject of writing. I went back to your post today and noticed
that, in response to her paper, members of our history department used the
same "devil words"--nihilism, meaninglessness--
you decribe as characteristic of media representations of deconstruction.
They also used the terms "anarchy" and "chaos" to refer to the consequences
of a postmodern stance. Ours is a school with a large contingent of
fundamentalists, teachers as well as students, so that fact probably has
some bearing on their objections. Interestingly, though, when we (English
people)got off Lyotard and onto Foucault, the history people calmed down a
bit. I thought Foucault would make things more inflammatory (the strong
influence of Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, in his work) but he didn't.
Maybe his systematizing (and the fact that history is of such importance to
him) made Foucault more palatable? Hard to know, I guess. History and
fundamentalism are an odd mix.

At 12:19 PM 10/25/96 -0600, you wrote:
>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