Nowadays it seems more often the case than not that in the demanding terrain of continentally influenced ethics, the discussions are as difficult to read as they are seemingly detached from real life. Michael Anker's recent contribution to ethical philosophy, The Ethics of Uncertainty: Aporetic Openings, is an exception to what is almost a rule. Indeed, while his work is grounded in thinkers whose texts are dense, his rendition and exploration of it all, without sacrificing depth, is not only breathtakingly incisive, but its prose is clear and his arguments articulate.
Anker convincingly invites the critical, introspective reader to make possibly momentous realizations about the uncertain, yet "not ... in binary opposition to certainty" (21), existentially aporetic nature of lived ethics. The word aporetic is derived from the term a-poria whose etymology teaches us that it refers to something impassable, literally without-passage. An aporetic opening, therefore, is an aperture where, for example in certainty, it was thought there could not be any. This uncertainty is thus not a kind of black hole, diametrically opposite to certainty, but instead it is a critical rapport to certainty. Notwithstanding one's agreement or disagreement with Anker's thesis, this work is required reading for anyone thinking critically at the intersection of contemporary political philosophy and ethics.
The question this book articulates an answer to is inspired by several critical thinkers, spanning from the first half of the nineteenth century until today. Anker asks the question as follows: "what does it mean to live, act, decide, respond, etc., in the aporia of freedom itself, a freedom which on one hand opens us to the pure opening ... of possible possibilities, and on the other, leaves us no solidified mark or measure for pre/determined determination?" (105) In other words, unlike with prescriptive ethics, if we assume the existential reality of freedom in the ethical situation, given the lack of authority within freedom in the determining of what characterizes a right or wrong action, how are we to act ethically? Such ethical circumstances seem equally liberating as overwhelming responsibility-ridden? This question finds its early historical grounding most in Kierkegaard's formulation: "freedom's actuality." (105)
Bringing together such divergent thinkers as Zizek, Derrida, Dewey, Nietzsche, Schirmacher and others, Anker convincingly argues for the possibility of living an ethical life not motivated or limited by any absolutes. Instead, he makes the strong case, taking his cue from Derrida, that we must first "endure the aporia" (99) before any ethical act to be actualized. This is because as Derrida points out most forcefully: "A decision that did not go through the ordeal of the undecidable would not be a free decision, it would only be a programmable application of unfolding of a calculable process. It might be legal; it would not be just." (60) This is perhaps the central point to Anker's argument and a motif that is recurrent all throughout the book. In the author's own words: "I believe along with Derrida, that it is only possible to live up to such things as responsibility and decision if one first `endures the aporia' or `double bind' which precedes, maintains, and follows any act of determinacy." (10) [This is characteristic also, I find, of the very process I am going through in writing this review. Having to decide what and how to write, must, if it is not going to be simply a re-iteration of the points made in the book, engage with aporetic openings - letting the becoming of the very ideas exposed in the text transport themselves, and by the same token me as well, elsewhere.] To be clear, the thesis is that equipped with the logical realization that no ethical decision worthy of the phrase can be actualized as the simple application of a calculable algorithm, one must experience firsthand the at first seemingly impossible character of the ethical context. If we do so, then unexpectedly a free new perspective from which to act, a kind of "decision within indecision" (61), is born. Such decision encompasses all the knowledge, sides, and thinking that might have been acknowledged prior reaching indecision, but it goes beyond them, it is creative, and that is why it is just.
Central to Anker's overall argument are two interrelated theses. The first one is a syn-thesis he derives from most of the thinkers he considers: "as something is coming to be it is always already becoming other" (12). This not only implies that since everything and everyone is always and always has been in a state of change there are no origins per se, but also that there are no knowable predetermined ends either. Secondly, this is directly relevant to what I would refer to as the relational thesis: that "without relation, or without the `between' of relations, there would be no change or transformation as event." (16) The author goes as far as specifying: "all things exist only in relation..." (16) [Notably, J. Krishnamurti (K) is known for having made all his life, even earlier than in his second book, The First and Last Freedom, in oral addresses, a very similar statement, that: "to be is to be related." (Chapter 14) K and that statement in particular has had an influence on my work and life. I see a very interesting, potentially rich link between what is advanced by K in terms of ethical questions and post-structuralist ethics.]
Here the author is intimately referring to Heidegger's Mitsein (being-with), Nancy's significant use of it, and also "Derrida's analysis of ... différance" (16). For Nancy, to be is to be with: "Being cannot be anything but being-with-one-another, circulating in the with and as the with of this singularly plural coexistence." (107, in Being Singular Plural, 3) In Derrida this takes a related but more deconstructive turn. Indeed, because of what différance does, it differs and it defers, it is relational through and through. Always situating itself somewhere different in between binary oppositions, différance keeps things undecidably related. Thus by showing there is no essence, since that notion is an illusionary metaphysical desire for certainty, différance keeps things open for the aporetically ethical. All there is are deferred differences. Anker sums it up nicely: "Differences create deferral and deferral creates differences." (54)
Strictly speaking, however, many would at first frown upon such an uncertain approach to ethics for despite its clarity it may still seem abstract, impractical. Concretely and materially speaking how are we to come to an ethical decision if we can never count on a hard concept or reality to guide us towards what to do? Anker acknowledges such concerns: "aporetic space does not lead to infinite deferral or indefinite suspension as some may expect." (24) He goes further and is cautious to point out at the beginning of the book: "there is a `empirico-materialist' strain in the tradition of Nietzsche, Dewey, and Deleuze..." (11) Taking Zizek, today's perhaps most vehement critic of dogmatic, theological and teleological thinking, Anker points out that in a very real sense he is backed up by Zizek himself on this relativism charge.
Indeed, in one of Zizek's influential recent books [The Parallax View] he writes, surprisingly in defense of Derrida, wanting to point out "the proximity of this `minimal difference' to what he called différance, this neologism whose notoriety obfuscates its unprecedented materialist potential." (9-10) However, agreeing with one of Zizek's claims, many of which have come to be expected to be playfully contradictory, while lending some credibility, will just not suffice in proving anything. Anker knows this and that is why he hopes nevertheless "in agreement with Zizek, to not only unleash the "materialist potential" in Derrida's notion of différance, but of all such notions utilized for a thinking on ethics ... in and with this world as such." (11)
As a result, Anker sets out to show how the affirmation of uncertainty or the enduring of aporia does not lead to political paralysis, but quite the contrary, that the undecidable might be an obligation for any ethical and not mechanical decision to take place. To do so he needs to show that "any decision which does not simultaneously open itself up to other possibilities risks the danger of becoming totalized and absolute." (34) He does it very well by demonstrating, for example, that "if one knows where one is going, there is no need for decision, for it is simply a matter of following a path." (44) The path may have been valid at some point in a different context but to use the same path now prevents from inventing the appropriate way for today's new ethical situation. Derrida explains this and Anker cites him: "Such, in fact, is the paradoxical condition of every decision: it cannot be deduced from a form of knowledge of which it would simply be the effect, conclusion, or explicitation." (64) From a purely logical standpoint, therefore, it seems thus far to make perfect sense that if we follow a prescribed ethics all we end up with is "the violence of totalization." (43) Kierkegaard's freedom with which we began must therefore be tapped as the active resistance to the totalizing mission of traditional ethics.
Yet beyond sheer logicality, invariably, the existential, emotional come into the picture, infecting the very logic of aporia with ironically empirico-materialist angst. Anker generally seems to agree: "This existential stance is of importance for it combines the uncertainty, the anxiety (my emphasis), and the instability of transformative becoming into a possible precursor to thinking ethics." (23) But perhaps the author has not considered enough of the implications? Lire la suite ›