Promises that Reach, Love that Endures: Ethical Commitments for World-Making

How do we act? How do we act politically? How do we enter a world outside of ourselves–one that preceded our arrival, one that will outlast our departure–in the hopes of changing it for the better?

As communities around the globe re-enter the streets in a multitude of struggles against oppression, there is perhaps no set of questions so pressing. The shared need to once again make the social body known and knowable in space and time, against the regimes of differential visibility that inhere in our moment, demands that we answer them creatively, collaboratively, and in ways that respond to new (and changing) structures of power. Yet even in the assertion that power is constantly being reorganized, we are pushed away from such tactical considerations to a more fundamental, pre-tactical question: how might we act? What is the basis on which we act?

We must return to this question today largely because our tactical debates themselves are so often pre-empted by the tautological and critically inert moral injunctions put forth by those who suppress movements toward justice and equality.  How are tactical questions–principles and practices of non-violence, organizational considerations, coalition building–to be fruitful if their outcomes are already denied by facile calls for us to “know our place,” to “be reasonable,” to “behave?” To paraphrase Mitropoulos (2011), what is the political response to such moral invectives, closed as they are to any meaningful undoing or revision?

This is why, even as we move into spaces of collective action, we must also return to pre-tactical questions; ethical questions. Wherever the moral would seek to undo the political, the ethical must pre-empt the moral. And so this is something of an effort to articulate an ethical ground for taking political action in a world where, as Judith Butler remarked in a recent talk in Vancouver, conventional protest tactics have lost their legitimacy (peaceful protesters who offer themselves up for arrest are nonetheless thrown to the ground and beaten). Of course, many who have come before me have taken this task on for themselves, but I think it’s an essential practice for those who wish to insert themselves into the world.

Any consideration of ethics and action, inescapably, must begin with the subject. Throughout the Western Liberal tradition, the locus of ethics (as both a discipline and an incitement to thought) has stubbornly remained on the thinking, acting, willing, rational, and above all, coherent subject. In turn, the question of what constitutes ethical action—a resistance to or rejection of wrongdoing, a life lived right by the world, and so on—has historically fallen on that same subject.

To be brief, this notion of an ethics of the subject is (for me) impossible from the outset. How can we even think of a way to do right and well by the world, to live by overlapping codes of practice and convention and construction, to safeguard against wrongdoing and violence, if we insist upon preserving the superior status of the individual subject at the cost of all others? It seems impossible to conceptualize ethics as anything other than an eminently social, extensive field, concerned first with the forces that overflow the subject and regulate the constitution (and severing) of bonds between beings. Why, then, should the individual be taken as its arbiter?

Any attempt to position that coherent subject as the mover of ethics, then, is doomed to undermine whatever hope we have of acting ethically. To grant the subject some kind of superior ability to access ‘the ethical’ is to commit a violence against the forever incomplete space of relationality that ultimately sustains the field. It is to sacrifice the very substance and promise of ethics to the subject-worship of the Western Liberal tradition.

This is all to say that I subscribe to what Butler calls a “social ontology.” Contradictory on its face, the term is meant precisely to draw attention to the fact that there is and can be no existing in or for oneself; there can be no body, no subject, no site of reality that is closed to the rupture of human intercourse. Our ontological status in this formulation inheres only in its negation.

Put another way, we are broken into, undone, unraveled by others; made vulnerable by and to a whole world of bodies, upon which we also rely for support. This is what Butler (2009) refers to as our shared condition of precarity. Arendt, in many ways anticipating Butler, names this organization of publicness, “plurality.” To paraphrase her words in The Human Condition, there is no being in this world whose existence does not pre-suppose its apprehension by another, a spectator. Indeed, to be human and alive in a plural world is to perceive and be perceived by others; to enter into a world of sentient beings whose perceptions confirm one’s existence, and whose existence one’s perceptions confirm.

This social ontology, though, raises its own challenge: If we are as much in others as in ourselves, then how are we to act (or even locate ourselves) in the world without damaging those to whom we are bound, and in the final instance, ourselves? It is relatively easy to claim that we are tied to others, but how are we to practically take account of these ties, including those we may never be aware of, when we act publically?

Faced with that practical challenge, we are returned to the ethical question laid out above: upon what commitments do we ground our actions, so as to, as Poyntz (forthcoming) puts it, organize our practices of publicness around the impersonality and strangerhood presupposed by a social ontology?

Having worked through these ideas in the context of a global reinvigoration of radical democratic aspirations, it is my sense that this provocation might be given meaning (though not nescessarily resolved) through a dual commitment to love and promising. At first blush the suggestion might seem lighthearted and politically inconsequential. But I don’t use these terms lightly. Rather, I use them purposefully, actively. Together, they tie us to the radical undoing of a social ontology while reaching into the future to preserve a space in which that undoing can flourish. At the same Vancouver lecture referenced above, Butler, recalling Arendt, put it another way. She claimed that the constitutive ethical moment of political life inheres in the question “Who are you?” insofar as that question points us toward an open moment of disidentification, a pre-judicial and pre-contractual appearance into the world. Love and promising, taken as the ethical foundations from which action might depart, are the forces that allow the echo of “who are you?” to resonate in a future yet to come.

To explain what I mean, I’ll begin with love.

In conventional parlance, love is understood to reside within us. To say that we ‘feel’ love is to say that we possess it, as if it were a property with finite boundaries, a virus. But that parlance forgets a rather obvious fact of love: that it always takes us beyond ourselves. If love, in principle, is a possession of the other in the body of the self, then the opposite must also be true: the possession of the self by others. It compels us toward and even into others. It asks us to inhabit the bodies and the histories of those around us. This is why we often regard love as transcendent; the coming together of two or more distinct social bodies into a single form, greater than the sum of its parts. Love is propulsive, asking us to overflow and overreach ourselves. It is the force that pulls us outward, fractures us, delivers us to others, situates us in a world of strangers by allowing those strangers to preserve some part of us. Fitting, then, that Jean Luc Nancy opens up the question of love through the image of “shattering:”

Love brings an end to the opposition between gift and property without surmounting and without sublating it: if I return to myself within love, I do not return to myself from love (the dialectic, on the contrary, feeds on the equivocation). I do not return from it, and consequently, something of I is definitely lost or dissociated in its act of loving. That is undoubtedly why I return (if at least it is the image of a return that is appropriate here), but I return broken: I come back to myself, or I come out of it, broken. The “return” does not annul the break; it neither repairs it nor sublates it, for the return in fact takes place only across the break itself, keeping it open. Love re-presents I to itself broken (and this is not a representation). It presents this to it: he, this subject, was touched, broken into, in his subjectivity, and he is from now on, for the time of love, opened by this slice, broken or fractured, even if only slightly. He is, which is to say that the break or the wound is not an accident, and neither is it a property that the subject could relate to himself. For the break is a break in his self-possession as a subject: it is, essentially, an interruption of the process of relating oneself to oneself outside of oneself. From then on, I is constituted broken. As soon as there is love, the slightest act of love, the slightest spark, there is this ontological fissure that cuts across and that disconnects the elements of the subject-proper, the fibers of its heart. One hour of love is enough, one kiss alone, provided that it is out of love – and can there, in truth, be any other kind? Can one do it without love, without being broken into, even if only slightly?

Love, in so opening us to others and refusing to close the fissures it enacts, might be seen as the very foundation of a social ontology. By extension, it is what reflects and grounds the question of “Who are you?” insofar as it traverses both the limits of the autonomous body and the social corridors that constitute it as a subject; always alerting us to spaces unknown, and spaces that, before love, could not be known. Its challenge, then, is pre-judicial, pre-contractual, even pre-political in that all those fields–justice, contract, politics–at least in the liberal tradition, depart from the subject. But love stubbornly refuses the subject. It is instead concerned with 1) the constitution of meaningful ties between bodies; and 2) with the inescapable condition of the precariousness of life (Butler) or, as Arendt expressed it, human plurality[1].

This understanding of love is, in some ways, akin to Arendt’s conceptualization of thought. On that subject, she lends to this discussion an instructive phrase, provided we substitute “love” for “thinking” (which, for reasons I won’t elaborate here, I think we have license to do): “The business of thinking is like Penelope’s web; it undoes every morning what it has finished in the night before.”

But here we find another problem, this one more temporal than ontological. In always undoing and unraveling, love seems to offer no futurity, no means of thinking of what might or ought to be, no possibility for the enduring task of world-making. It ties us to one another and propels us toward the stranger, but makes no demand and offers no vision for how that propulsion might extend into the future. Indeed, love is a force of the present precisely because it negates the future, a fact to which Arendt seemed alert when she wrote: “the present, in ordinary life the most futile and slippery of the tenses—when I say ‘now’ and point to it, it is already gone—is no more than the clash of a past, which is no more, with a future, which is approaching and not yet there.”

If we are to adequately address the question that began this essay, “how do we act?” it is this “not yet there,” and its relation to love, that we must dwell on. Love is the constitutive moment of politics because it precedes and opens the political as a field. But how is the social ontology it enacts projected into the future? How do we allow it to flourish, to amplify, to become emphatic? How do we create a world in which love can speak its name through the social body?

This is the role of the promise.

Where love is emphatically now, the promise reaches forward. It is what gives the “not yet there” a positive valence, partially fixing it in advance and imagining it as a place where love can be renewed. It is not an attempt to give “structure” to the future in any conventional sense, as such a gesture would in fact artificially close the ontological break animated by love and reaffirm the boundaries of the subject qua subject. Rather, promising is the attempt to preserve the future as a space and time where we might always love; where we might always be broken, extended, overbrimmed by love. Poyntz’ (forthcoming) words from earlier are worth repeating here: while the promise is indeed an attempt to establish some kind of social infrastructure, it must be understood as a means of normatively organizing future publicness and sociality around the undoing and the impersonality of loving. To say, “I will love you” is to enact a not yet there where love is refounded even as old fissures remain open. In this way, it operates through the ethical ought to that compels us to think forward, beyond the now of love, to another time and place where it endures as a normative principle.

To conceptualize the promise in this way is to do so along expressly Arendtian lines. To this effect, Bernstein (2010) writes:

In The Human Condition, promising is posited as the remedy for the ‘chaotic uncertainty of the future’ since it speaks to our capacity to legislate our future actions in a way our fellows can count on…Brute regularity can give the future a predictable visage, but only with the past as its support. Promising reaches out toward the future through the very gesture in which one individual reaches out toward her other; in the act of promising the I binds herself to her other to form a we whose future together the act of promising legislates.

The distinction that Bernstein here draws between “brute regularity” and promising is critical, and coincides with another of The Human Condition’s most important insights. Arendt writes in the book’s opening pages that action, in its original Greek interpretation, had a dual meaning: it was understood as both beginning and continuing. In contemporary Western liberal democracies, this dual meaning has largely been lost. Today, democratic practice seems little more than an act of carrying on; a series of minor representational changes unfolding within the “brute regularity” of institutional practice, costumed in the hyperbolic performance of difference. Political life has become, in this sense, tautological: Why is democracy mostly limited to voting once every four years? Because that’s what democracy is.

The refounding of political life–the ‘beginning’ implied by Greek interpretations of action–has been sacrificed to the reproduction of a technocratic, managerial, institutional democratic practice. In making this claim, I do not mean to slide into simple anti-establishment polemicism. Indeed, in most cases, it is our institutions that open up spaces in which new actions and appearances can unfold. What I am suggesting, though, is that any revival of the democratic imagination would seem to rest on reconstituting this fertile relation[2] of beginning to continuing.

As is hopefully clear by this point, it is my sense that this reconstitution might be animated by the reorganization of publicness around the normative value of love and the future-legislation of promising. To love and to promise that love will endure is to undo, refound, and preserve at once. It is a dual commitment that traverses past, present, and future by encompassing the pre-political moment of “who are you?”, the now of loving and being loved, and the reaching-out toward a “not yet there” through the promise.

As my references to democratic practice might suggest, I think this is of tremendous political significance, and cuts directly back to the question with which I began: how do we act? A reformulation of the relation of beginning to continuing, mediated by an ethical commitment to love and promising, breathes new life into those rigid debates that exhaustively circle the apparent impasse between reform and revolution–the kind of sparring matches that perennially paralyze the political work of realizing justice and equality (Bernstein, 2010). So often, those that seek to rework extant institutions are dismissed as compliant, centrist, against the movement, and so on. The reverse is also true. Those working at the institutional level often rush to discredit more radical experiments in prefigurative politics. Yet if a robust democratic life appears precisely where beginning (revolution) and continuing (reformation) are realized together (but not necessarily united), then the stale, dualistic conflict between reformists and revolutionaries is transformed into a rich, fertile, difficult space of co-presence, mutuality, and care that traverses both time and the body.

Arundhati Roy points beautifully to this link between the political act of world-making and a love made to endure through the promise when she writes:

To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance….Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget….Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing” (my emphasis).

By way of closing, it is necessary to note that these claims are, of course, open to the same kind of criticisms so often filed against radically democratic programs of thought. Namely, that they paint an overly rosy picture of what happens when distinct bodies gather in space, carrying with them vast social histories that may put them inescapably at odds with one another. There is little I can do to thwart this line of critique, largely because, based on my own experience in radical political environments, it holds relatively true. But those same experiences of incommensurability have also taught me that disagreement and difficulty should never be seen as forces that necessarily and automatically foreclose on greater dreams of publicness and care for those beyond ourselves. And indeed it seems to me that to speak in these bold terms, to think of ways that one might undo and refound one’s place in the world, is itself both an act of worldly love and a promise; a reaching out toward a better, shared future.


[1] Nancy himself gets at the same notion when he writes, “community is revealed in the death of others.”

[2] The choice of ‘relation’ here is purposeful, but still clumsy. What I am trying to avoid is the biological or ecological language of some sort of ‘dynamic tension.’ To me, this suggests that beginning and continuing are discrete forces that, through a repellant magnetism, hold one another at some appropriate distance and in some appropriate position. I similarly avoid the language of dialectics, since that would suggest that the two are related through some aspiration toward “over turning,” as if it were somehow pre-ordained that beginning should overcome continuing. Dialectics, as well, maintains the aforementioned notion that the two forces are somehow discrete, rather than realized in and against each other at once. The language for this kind of co-presence escapes me.

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