in a meeting of the curious yesterday morning, i ran up against an old… should we say… friend?
here is how we met, again:
in a lengthy and lovely discussion on gadamer, derrida, foucault and others, parsing and pausing to see where we all stood, i predictably took the the side of endless play. of differance, of difference. my two wise and generous interlocutors then whittled our discussion right down to that ever present stopgap, the relativity question. you’ve heard it before, but once again: if there is no ground, no foundation… how can one act and essentially, from what point can we issue care?
it’s an old question. or a newly old question, issuing from the enlightenment which ushered in the era of reason. either way, the lines have been drawn so many times I won’t repeat them here. what i would like to repeat is something like jean jacques rousseau’s question, tortured as he was in asking it… yet before we get there
let’s slow things down a bit:
first, the relativity question is most usually a problem for ethicists, for political theorists, for those who are asking hard questions about what it is to be a we. understandably the absence of ground often elicits anxiety in those who want to formulate an ethics. many want things to be true in order to build out an ethics from that solid truth. but is that the only option? if derrida, foucault, deleuze and others propose what deleuze calls a groundless ground, is there no way to separate out what is (groundlessness) from what we’d like to have instead (modes of learning to live peacefully and healthily together)? is there no way to move from the is/ought to the is/want?
or are we already about the business of this shift daily?
take 18th, 19th and 20th century democracy, marxism or socialism for example. there was a time when the divine right of kings grounded present politics in an eternal truth claim. enter the enlightenment, the french revolution, the american revolution, etc… somewhere down the line a group of (yes, mainly) men said we’re done with this. we’d like to change the terms. entering into a social contract, new lines were drawn, new truth claims laid down and voila… ground out of groundlessness, something from nothing.
of course i know the critiques to be made, the banners to be raised: what gave these men the right to lay things out as they did? who is to say that what they found representative or socially responsible, or equitable is equitable for you, and representative of us… essentially, who decides what is to be decided?
and of course, without a universal truth for ground, this questions evokes unanswerable torrents in its wake. this very line of questioning can, and probably has been, applied to every divine right claim through the ages. and yet, there is the constitution. a document which might better serve us were it considered a living document, up for revision, as one jefferson proposed, but which stands, nonetheless, on ground no more firm than the water in your sink. we’ve simply agreed and continue to agree that there is something like an unalienable right, amongst other agreements. and while we would do well even to call rights into question, to say that because we are groundless means we cannot decide to pour a foundation seems not only false, but blind to life as we live it.
as quickly as i write this, with rousseau’s social contract shadowing my every key stroke, i am aware of the decisionism also looming in my above argument. the echos of liberalism, the horrible lurkings of adam smith. so let me be as clear as i can in saying that the proposed move from is/ought to is/want does not have to take the current shapes we know, love, hate or ignore. the actor networks in play during the formation of the united states of america did not have to produce american hegemony, capitalist globalization, etc… given a groundless ground things can and still could be otherwise. this is where relativity and its persisting question is at its most productively freeing: perhaps ethics no longer needs a universal truth to build from and what ethicists choose to build are structures as free as the birds. perhaps this is the beauty of this possibility. while the is/ought is pre-stocked (the ramifications of a given ‘is’ (although ‘given’ is quite the oxymoron here) necessitate a set of particular oughts) the outcome of the is/want is wide open to the free play of hope. echoing judith butler’s work on performativity, my (albeit tentatively) proposed is/want means that the new social contracts – be they between two, between ten or between ten million, are actors on an infinite stage of possibility. or they could be. this is of course, more in theory than in practice, but it is theory we are dealing with in the relativity question. daily life sorts this out without flinching as we think and act toward how best to show love to those we care for, as we think and act toward both the upholding and the questioning of laws, of social justice.
moving from is/ought (from formulating ontologies) to is/want – (formulating modes of praxis)… sidelining the relativity question and enabling community formation. it seems all to easy.
surely i am missing something…