on May 21, 2011
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? Indeed, a level of complication is added experientially in that with aporia can come feelings of anxiety, being in the way of the self psychologically remaining in the unknown and indeed enduring aporia. Anker is to be commended for bringing up the anxiety level of experience throughout his text for it is often not made explicit in deconstructionist discourse. However, one of the questions implied then becomes: what is the empirical experience of aporia? Indeed, based on the author's helpful opening on this I want to raise questions where his narrative can be taken further, taking it for example, to the relationship of self-to-self as constitutive of the relationship of self-to-other.
First, however, let us become clearer on the nature of Anker's opening, that is, let us examine what anxiety is and how it comes to be in relation to aporia. In one of his three conversations of Nietzsche he conclusively argues: "contemporary views on anxiety and obsession have a lot to learn from Nietzsche for anxiety in itself is not the problem; it is the symptoms expressed in the intolerance and inability to sustain uncertainty itself." (91) This is key because if is the case, as I believe it is, that anxiety itself is not an issue then it means we must challenge the typical negative connotations that gravitate around it. Anker points out "indecision is usually considered a state from which one should quickly depart by way of resolve. ... Being caught up in the anxiety of indecision is ... viewed as a weakness of mind." (29) Instead, he wants to "to re-think anxiety as a positive potentiality before it reaches the negative symptomology expressed in an inability to maintain uncertainty." (91)
This is significant for there are entire industries built on encouraging avoidance of uncertainty et al. The media tends to function in such a way as to present issues as if there were only certain sides to them while others are ignored or debased. Moreover, pressure to placate ourselves with vain entertainment is abundant. Perhaps we could say this is a form of manipulation. It is in this light it seems the author, going beyond the thinkers he examined, "wish[es] to suggest ... it is of ethical importance to turn away ... from the distraction of particulars and turn toward the fundamental anxiety of nothing. ... we can perhaps ... decide in the temporality of hesitation. ... a decision may occur, and thus also the responsibility of being in a world with others." (100) In short, Anker concludes that to lead an ethical life we must put a stop to the vain, unproductive and in the end unethical search for an anxiety-free life, and instead espouse the ethical promise of aporia that comes with allowing the anxiety in the face of the unknown. All in all, by drawing from several sources that share with him the struggle to find ways to overcome uncritical patterns of thinking that exclude the differences that make life worth living and ethical, Anker articulated a vision that is logically consistent and ethical.
Nevertheless, to be psycho-logically consistent with Anker's methodological goal to enunciate an empirico-materialist view, practically speaking how are we to "endure the aporia" (99) when anxiety is experienced in the context of a conditioned desire for certainty? Should not that very desire be deconstructed? It is interesting that the author, both in the light of his methodological goal and despite creating a bridge between post-structuralist discourse and the existential notion of anxiety, does not go there. [To be fair to Anker, he cannot really be blamed for this in the sense that, at least to the best of my knowledge, the philosophers he examines the most, Nietzsche, Derrida and Nancy, do not generally point in that direction either. Why they do not is a very interesting question.] This is perhaps because in the final analysis Anker makes of anxiety everything but an experiential and physical notion. Indeed, he says: "Without this a priori anxiety, there in fact would be no such things as decision..." (91) Furthermore, by proclaiming anxiety above as follows, "the fundamental anxiety of nothing" (100), by not delineating the experientially-aporetic aspects of it, he runs the risk of making anxiety the very transcendental notion he argued against. Yet, by taking our cue from Anker's exploration of the relationship between aporia and anxiety we may here start to point towards where such an analysis may lead, which I believe would not be against Anker's thesis, but would strengthen it by grounding it in the worldly matters of, in this case, the emotion of anxiety.
Anker suggests there is a two-way relationship between aporia and anxiety in that they imply each another: "Aporias thus have an intimate two-fold relation to anxiety, in the sense that aporias not only create anxiety, but anxiety furthermore maintains the open aporetic space of possibility/impossibility. (22) However, empirically speaking there is an additional layer. While I see the potential for the undecidable in-between of aporia and anxiety, I do not see their mutual relationship as necessarily ethical. Here again, the relationship between the two terms should not be reduced to be that of logic only. It is not anxiety alone that maintains the aporetic space but rather what is done with such an emotion. Anxiety is a shifting and doubling sentiment, one that can either be manifesting itself as an open ethical space, or one that is quite the opposite as, taking the example we saw already, when it is derived as a symptom. In fact, Anker points part of this out: "To view anxiety as a symptom is to miss the fundamentally positive potentiality of an ontological restlessness that precedes notions of decision and responsibility." (91) The question becomes that of the relationship of self-to-self in the face of anxiety and how that relation affects the relation to other. In more philosophical terms, the question is to do with solipsism.
We may begin to answer partially these questions from Anker's text itself. For instance, Anker uses several authors throughout the book that speak to the relationship of self-to-self. He paraphrases Derrida to point out that the relation of oneself to oneself is such that one is never one with oneself: "a being cannot simply be one with itself, or self-identical with itself." (46) Moreover, in one of his discussions of Nancy, Anker explains the relationship to the self is that of being related to multiple selves: "The ego (subject) is not alone even by itself, or in itself; it is always already with itself as multiple selves." (70) The author explains Heidegger on this point too: "We are ... continuously thrown outside ourselves or in excess of our being by the movement of becoming." (22) Therefore, the relation to self is the very manifestation of the self as always already interrupted by the other, be it something or someone. [Here it would have been very helpful for the author to use Butler's analysis of the interrupted self by the other in "Giving an Account of Oneself."]
As for the relationship of self-to-other, based on the above depiction of the relationship of self-to-self, the author first uses Nancy for a rendition of his own interpretation: "Being together in the plurality of singular being, for Nancy, is not a union, communion, or merging of any sort. It more so suggests a side by side relation where singularities do not merge into identities or communities of the same, but into pluralities of singular difference." (71-72) Anker continues on this separate-but-related notion and gets help from Badiou's "a Two without synthesis" (93) to show that even though in this approach each side of the relationship stays other, this view "is not simply a solipsistic subjective relation to the other ... The maintaining of difference, in fact, allows a thinking of the other as other outside the self..." (95)
Notice the perhaps telling use of words: "not simply ... solipsistic..." (95) Does this reveal the author believes the view he argues for is solipsistic, or is it supposed to mean the view is not just solipsistic, implying it is so only to a degree, or better still that it is not solipsistic at all? Anker leaves the equivocation to stand, but presumably it is the author's attempt at debunking any accusation of solipsism. Why would he do so in this easily debatable way in view of his empirico-materialism goal? In any event, it would appear such a view has some elements of solipsism. While Anker's view surely addresses better than others some of the layers of solipsism, it very may be failing to address other aspects of it. Judging by his defense of his standpoint to the solipsism allegation we can try identifying what the author assumes is solipsism. That is, since Anker's justification is that if both ends maintain their difference, it "allows a thinking of the other as other outside the self..." (95), can we presume the assumption is to fight the solipsistic belief that only I, together with my experiences, are real; that everything else including others are merely parts of my consciousness? Namely if I willfully allow the other as such outside of myself, then I must not be solipsistic since I recognize the other not as part of my consciousness.
What about, however, another primary solipsistic idea: that other minds cannot be known? Does not the view that refuses any "communion" and "merging" of any sort with the other, submit to this aspect of solipsism? Admittedly there is a clear danger of boxing in the other through knowing as enclosing, but is there not a knowing that is by contrast an opening? How are we to have an ethical relationship with the other if we never connect at some other level than that of the known? [I have in mind Foucault's challenge to think and know differently: "[W]hat is philosophy today-philosophical activity, I mean-if it is not the critical work that thought brings to bear on itself? In what does it consist, if not in the endeavor to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known?"] The motivation behind Anker's position is clearly grounded in the fear of the logic of recognition: of "forcing the other into the domain of the same." (94) This is legitimate up to a point, for in order for me to come to see myself ethically as other too, the other that must come to challenge my very identity is like me: deferring difference, interrupted in their own being, precisely by the other, me? Does not this mean there is sameness in difference? Of course, I too am tempted by this: "Both ends keep their difference, and yet between the two there is movement and transformation or again to use the phrase of Badiou, "an experimentation of difference." Experimentation here implies a continuous exchange, a simultaneous giving and taking from the other..." (94) But it seems there is more.
For like undecidable terms, the relationship between self-and-other is not that of reciprocal giving and receiving, or action and re-action, but by contrast, to be ethical, if it is to be kept uncertain, it must be that of interrupted reciprocity, both in me and with the other. And it is such interruption that is common and may then be shared with the other without the risk of totalization. Both the self and other must step out into the other of their own self to have access to the other as such. The other, then, is not made the same as me, for at that moment there is no me. Is there not simply a kind of empirically productive anxiety, not fear, felt in the face of the other as aporia? Is this not connected to Schirmacher's "imperceptible fulfillment" (103) in that homo-generator creates and is created in that unknown and "silence" (103) of the measureless rapport to the other? Another point is that the other be not only logically accepted in their difference but psycho-logically recognized as such in me so that acceptance of difference, not pressure to sameness, is felt in them and may bring about empirico-materialist change. In other words, what about shared emotional uncertainty? What about the uncertainty of letting someone in? It is beyond the scope of this review to delve further.
Having both summarized what I take to be Anker's position and outlined the main lines of his thought, I now want to offer a summary and short extension of the questions that are left unaddressed. I want to stress they are not meant to be repudiations. Instead they are supposed to point out areas that I find require further elaboration in order to take the work to the next level.
- What is the empirical experience of enduring aporia?
- How are we to "endure the aporia" (99) when anxiety is experienced in the context of a conditioned desire for certainty?
- What is the relationship between the various sources of Anker's thinking?
- Should not the desire for certainty be deconstructed in the attempt to cultivate an ethics of uncertainty?
- To act ethically, is it sufficient to maintain the other as other?
- Is a view that "allows a thinking of the other as other outside the self" (95) free of solipsism?
- Why is not Foucault's work on ethics and especially his reflections on the governmentality of the self and others used? The author does make use of Butler in the bibliography but not in the text. As briefly mentioned in a footnote above, her treatment of the interrupted subject in the ethical situation could have helped in his discussion of the self and other and maybe have directed him towards analyzing the experiential aspect of enduring aporia.
- Is it not time to explore the unconscious and unknown of relationships?
In spite of persisting questions, The Ethics of Uncertainty is an important book that significantly contributes to contemporary contributions in ethical and political philosophy. While the reader will be rewarded by repeated readings of this book, the finesse of Anker's presentation is seamlessly formulated. Anker's analyses of Derrida, Nancy, Nietzsche, and others are both accessible to those without much background in critical thought, but at the same time thought-provoking to challenge scholars in the field.
Anker, Michael. The Ethics of Uncertainty, edited by Wolfgang Schirmacher. New York: Atropos Press, 2009.
Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure. New York: Vintage Books (1990): 8-9.
Krishnamurti, J. The First and Last Freedom. With a forward by Aldous Huxley. New York: Harper, 1954.