Abyssus Abyssum Invocat: Part III



SLAVE ETHICS (or, SLAVE AND OTHER VIS-A-VIS)

"The ant who eats [and works] and does not speak, speaks, nevertheless, to chase out the grasshopper" - Michel Serres, The Parasite

I think it important to catch moments of subversion, like the one described in Part II, for they are not many. The well-defined judgment/chain - in this case, one that forbids laughter when it concerns abject pain - usually works in silence. That is its force. That, I would dare say, is also its violence.

So it is important not to condemn the slave with her chains. She is already condemned, and more condemnation will be accepted or rejected by her according to its origin in the master; and the master has already hidden itself too well. This will inevitably lead to pointless (and endless) squabbling among various strata of slaves. More condemnations, accusations, guilt…

There is another way, but it is more difficult, uncomfortable. The only weakness of these chains that work in silence, that work to silence, are those small gestures of resentment from the slave towards those who are missing one chain or another. The language of chains is mute, it is the language of guilt – a silent and silencing brutality.

This silent brutality, these slave's chains, are also her only true belongings; something that feels, to her, like an identity. She cannot break free of them, nor change the arrangement of her own chains; much less does she have the master's power to chain anyone else.

From this position of servitude, that of the dumb/uncomplaining humility of a worker ant, the slave can only, and only briefly and rarely, communicate her oppression. To communicate, not "share" or "tell": it will always be impossible for her to see/witness (from Greek - theoros) these chains, to tell of them. Not because they are "all she knows", but because they are the condition(ing) of her knowledge.

Like the ant from Fontaine's famous story, this mute brutality only feeds (on its subject's libidinal energies), and works (its suppressive automatisms/brutalities in silence). AND YET, when it somehow senses a difference, say by a glimpse of pride in the slave (as put forward in Part II), something of that silent brutality was brought to the foreground, and made to speak. And when it does, we should listen. The slave’s resentment, the miracle of its expression, betrays something of the nature of her chains; or, more precisely, of the difference between her and her chains.


N.B. You can read my comments on this "slave" in non-subjectivist terms as well; with the chain-whip representing the uncanny effects of an unconscious symptom. The symptom cannot be moralized or reasoned-with, clinging fast to its visceral rights/roots; averting, like Teflon, any ideological/moral framework on its path. No Truth of Origin to be found, no master/authorizing principle. The call to responsibility here is the call to communicate with the strange structures that our chains/symptoms unfold. Responsibility here means insisting on feeling your way in pitch black, rather than fallaciously declaring it too black to synoptically map, and therefore to engage with. It isn't clean. Toes will be stepped on, and confrontations could occur, but that is the terrain. 
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By the way, when I use "slave" here, think more Plato's chained Cave-prisoners than, you know, Hegel.

We are all Descartes now, and this silent chain is our evil genius. Are we going to bypass it as Descartes did, or, more like Freud and Nietzsche, greet it with a welcoming - but also irreducibly hostile – word (or blog post)?

This was always about hospitality; and, as Derrida had to remind us, the latter is thoroughly implicated with the hostis, the hostile - they're folded-in together. It is about doing justice to those expressions we forbid for being somehow evil, immoral, and/or impractical (our Protestantism loves conflating these three).

It also means that there is a measure of hospitality to hostility; why else, do you think, 'western democracies' love relegating their aggro dirty-works to speechless things, like machines and algorithms (drone strikes, spying, hacking etc)? It is the logical conclusion of their "moral ontology", isn't it? Pure, rational agents, perfect slaves. Drones don't have ethical encounters. Nor do Spy Satellites. Nor algorithms. Soldiers, spies and hackers that are, as, Aristotle says, "talking animals", are so much less reliable. Even those that act like perfect drones, might not do so in the future.

Thank God – they sometimes stop just long enough to complain and spit venom. We just need to know how to communicate through that.


METHODOLOGY MATTERS: BACK TO THE ROUGH GROUND

"The more narrowly we examine actual language, the sharper becomes the conflict between it and our requirement. (For the crystalline purity of logic was, of course, not a result of investigation: it was a requirement.) The conflict becomes intolerable; the requirement is now in danger of becoming empty. -- We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!" - Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

To my mind, we need to start considering the ethics of speech situations differently (than Christian philosophers like, say, Habermas or Searle). Emmanuel Levinas left us this project, which he called "ethics as first philosophy." And I think the parasite, the interrupting mediator, needs to infiltrate its way into that idyllic self-justification that western philosophy likes to call "the (rational/human) agent" or "the (rational/human) subject".

Beginning from the parasite, making this interruption-agent fundamental as such -- i.e., neither an agent that speaks some new or antithetical meaning, nor one with a secure(d) propriety ('soul,' 'identity,' etc.) -- makes more sense. What kind of sense? Phenomenological sense (Levinas used to see phenomenology, at its best, as precisely "idealism without Reason").

It is an issue, after all, of communication: "identity", never preceding language, cannot take precedence over it. We cannot presuppose nodes when all we have is language.

Well, we can, but then you get what became of Academic 'Philosophy' today: dead, irrelevant, programmed to justify an ideological stupor from which by now we have all been, quite rudely, awakened these past decades. I guess what I'm trying to say is that we cannot afford this lobotomized approach any longer.


So let me offer the following methodological machine:


Hypothesis:

Using her chains to strike the chainless - or the differently chained - is the first communicative gesture of the slave.

Axiom:

There is a "play," an unsublatable, space of difficult freedom, between the silent and silencing master, and the silenced, hard-working necessities(/slaves) that maintain this master.

The thought here is neither to make the unconscious conscious, nor the slave into a master (or the guilt-y reverse), nor even "abolish slavery". This is a realm where western philosophy - and all the other 'social sciences' it authorizes - sees all cows as equally black to use Hegel’s phrase (indistinguishable to surveying eyes, and so the differences between them cannot be made into a 'truth-statement' without remainder, cannot be "told").

But that does not mean they cannot be communicated with. In fact, this small space of play may be the only locus of communication - provided you see the latter as something other than exchange of information between pre-estabished nodes (in general, anything an algorithm can do better than you is not where thought happens, it is where program happens).

So, we go out into the ground, at night, to rough ourselves up some cows.

Ever try touching something unfamiliar (or someone), for the first time, in the dark? It's scary. The organizing principles of our perception are left with no corroboration, and begin to loosen-up, to waver in their anticipation. Unlike the surveying, telling eyes, touch is always partial, dirty, rude. No voyeurs or Panopticons here, no secure vantage-points: you cannot touch without being touched.

Touching leaves in/on me an impression, a 'pression'; a little dent on, an interruption of, these groping hands. Yes, feeling your way in the dark, you might inadvertently grab someone's privates - this is why white/Protestant agents are so, so inadequate to the task (so much so that they made it philosophically taboo).

When it comes to communication, perhaps touch is a better metaphor than light; sight was always obsessed with Truth (and its degrees of "purity"), while contact necessarily involves the question of tact. Tact, with no control or synoptic comprehension. Tact, not basking in the universal light like everyone and everything else, but rudely going where no man (sic) has gone before: When you touch a foreign Thing, you, known to yourself (at least in fantasy, but it is a resilient fantasy), are also aware of being touched by it; this Thing, in itself, is unknown to you. Yet, it is not nothing.

'I', something conscious-yet-limited, am called to responsibility for touching something unlimited. Touch, hence, is always reciprocal, but never symmetrical. The limited touched the unlimited - that is a space I propose as corresponding to what Levinas called my asymmetrical relation to the Other. It's not a survey. Like the parasite's, it is always already an interruption. Don't ask "interruption of what" - or you will slide right back into the aforementioned lobotomy.


Let's go back to our slave.

To recall, since she is identified with the chains, she cannot reflect on them directly. But she can be aware of their foreignness, at least on some level; aware of the force that they exert and justify (primarily on herself). Aware of their counter-touch. This awareness is dumb, however; it has no address, and no possibility of address. Yet, like a lone survivor on a deserted island, she can send it out as a message in a bottle. Since she's enslaved to another machine (not a chain-whip one), this uncertain envoy is singular; she has to somehow "pick" these moments.

In this case, when a man-immigrant like me flaunted a freedom where to her "Weltanschauung" I ought to have had none - in other words, when she met a "bad slave" (since this one-chain-missing jerk is no master) - an interruption occurred. Of course, the conditions I mention are almost spurious, unprogrammable and unforeseeable; the act of communication was conditioned by haptics, not optics. We cannot generalize on the conditions except from our hypothesis and axiom; what I wrote above is a dark, uncertain generality at best.

Like in Serres' quote above, when the work-eat ant-machine is somehow interrupted, this opens a brief window where this slave can achieve a rudimentary reflection of its own autistic servitude. It's just this "reflection" is haptic, and, hence, rude; more like bouncing the chain off the other (as opposed to putting it on some imaginary neutral table and "discussing it as equals").

This, by the way, applies to many contemporary receptions of protest and its "manners", oppression and its expression. Slaves are not free to act politely, and they have no slaves of their own (to protest for them). They can only speak by hitting with their chains. Until this logic is perceived for how and why it is, "Me Too" will continue to be unheard and misheard as man-hating, and Black Lives Matter protesters will be associated with "reverse-racism" (however many times it gets debunked). Demanding that protesters legitimize themselves by politely presenting clear demands is, quite literally, irresponsible; it evades, or at least grossly misunderstands, communication. 

So, no "Shawshank redemption" here, I'm afraid. We stay in the prison. We will have to deal somehow with what freedom means there. I'm neither a Marxist nor a libertarian; to me there is no "losing the chains", for with the chain comes the question of what Levinas calls 'exteriority,' that which somehow interrupts a secure closure/totality, coming from an unknown outside. Chains will always be there. It is out ethical duty, as "speaking animals", to talk through them.

And so, in this land of victorious slaves, chains is all we have. So when the chain whips you, there's an opportunity, for it touches -- where, habitually, chains pull one away, tying-off a 'self', sending it back to work, back into solipsistic distractions/guilt by which this work (as an ethos) continues, machine-like, to invest itself where it (still) can..

But here, my bottled messages are left alone, a small perk that comes from having no chains, and hence nothing to lose (or gain). A parasitic privilege, no doubt.

It is true that there is a vast archive whose entire purpose is to talk about these chains - for example, "self-help" "literature" (yes, these kinds of verbal shit-blenders need the sanitary precaution of two "quotes") - but never to engage them ethically. Self-help will talk you around or away from the chains, much like a western psychiatrist or psychologist deals with your symptoms (medication, CBT, Hypnosis, "ego-psychology", etc.); but never, ever, allow access into them. Never speak to them, or make them speak; surely never to ethically respond to their interruption.

A "play" in the chain for these types of shitheads means a problem to be rid of: either tightening the chain's grip for it to become seamlessly "identified" with it, or controlling the environment so as to allow no more "unnerving" interruptions. "Toxic people!" "Gaslighters!" "Haters!", and, yes, "Parasites!" too. Just "don't feed them".

When the slaves "tell" of their chain troubles, as discussed above, they can only relate to other chains or other chain-assemblages (i.e. "other slaves"). And so all these contemporary agents of shit-swallowing can offer is a new management system. They never cared for justice, or communication (western philosophy told them it had it covered, and, sadly, was all-too-literally right). The chains themselves never come under question, and their questions are preemptively barred from the aforementioned subversive expression.

That is what I mean by lobotomy. (Cf. Darian Leader's What is Madness (Penguin, 2012), for a good survey of this structure in western mental-health theory and praxis).


CONCLUSION: UNGRATEFUL SERVITUDE

Of course, this was Plato's problem in his parable of the cave; where prisoners are content in their chains while the philosopher tries, and fails, to "tell" them of another world of freedom and truth. Another example is Descartes' hypothesis of an inner "evil" that distorts all perceived Truth, and how to cope with it regardless. Plato's solution was to leave it - the cave, the chains, the prisoners - behind, or die as a martyr trying to tell the slaves they are slaves. Descartes' solution was a logical bypass of this "inner evil".

As much as it seems counter-intuitive today, this slave-state of alienation - from everything not work-eat related - can only announce itself through the haptics of interruption (rather than the optics of Enlightenment). Everything else is deflected, appropriated as energy for the ant's solipsistic chains, that are also its shield. If you try to interrupt the work, for example, your interruption will be "managed" or (r)ejected, there's a function ready to take your call, like a smoking designated area, or a leper colony.

No, the interruption needs an anchor to dislodge, something fundamental, too fundamental for the ant to keep eating and working undisturbed. You catch it with its need, the need that brings the abstract infinity of ideological structures back to contact with this spectrum of bodily finitude; need, pain, death.

But they don't have to be completely mute. The interruptive point of con-tact is the first site of ethical responsibility, and is, as Levinas also notes, fundamentally inscribed in this spectrum. Life as a sur-vival, includes a projection towards a future where life persists; and this "sur" of time, of hope, is where the encounter, the promise and the threat, can arrive. Killing the ant to get its food, or guilting it to give its food away, are procedures that either annihilate the space of communication, or, forcefully, ignore it (respectively).

Since the slaves only lash-out a chain during particular events, singular acts of hospitality, the possibility, and, I think, also the desirability of science's usual method of 'generalized reproducibility of data' is always already lost. These chains will not speak to western-scientific methods of unbiased inquiry, where "observers" are detached, or have their impact somehow "compensated for", as is the social science wont.

Summoning an ant to answer a survey about "parasites" - "rate your level of annoyance of the parasite from 1 to 10", for example (yes, the social sciences are often, and by necessity, that simple/stupid) - it will mumble some platitudes and wish to go back to work. Systematizing these platitudes, over a variety(?) of ants, might generate a coherent picture, a clear line through the data (hooray!), but this coherence would be wholly ideological; a kind of "confirmation-bias" (to speak in scientific-methodological terms), except at a level that modern western science, by definition and with the full force of good faith, can allow itself no access to.

We can't pretend that the normal (and normalizing) setting of "surveys" and the statistically-digestible "data" they yield (ugh) can appeal to our chains any more than a police officer can be screened for "racism". Since 'normal' is the name of a condition(ing), a process, and not some independent, homeostatic reality, this rare event - much like shooting a 12 year-old black kid with a toy in his hands - is implicated in non-reason, non-intention. We can't fault the police for stumbling in the dark we plunged them to, alone.

But we can listen intently when they insist that they fired because they saw a demon.

That would be closer to responsibility. Closer to the rough ground.


Alienation echoes alienation in the lobotomy of western thought (philosophy, social science...), where the "objective/rational scientist", just like the self-help and psychology morons, provide comfort, the comfort-zone of an ideological echo chamber; scientists don't deal in "meta-physics" (and neither do most western philosophers for that matter). It is that Kantian Critique again, the Kantian humility - letting go of transcendent Reason/God and making it a transcendental all-too-'human' - which dictates, even now, the avoidance of such issues, those of which Truth is, in principle, not secure(d) .

But when one comes to eat beside the ant (Greek: para-sitos), nibbling on the edges of a (social/political/economic) Capital in which one is not a full member, then an interruption can occur, and this channel of communication can open. Yes, it is surely not an easy channel, not pretty, a channel born of hostility and fear -- but such is the nature of need in the world of talking animals.

And here lies our responsibility towards that need. It will never be polite.

If it is communicated with, it might well considerably alter our mores in unpredictable ways.

And towards towards unpredictable Whys.


<Image courtesy of Phil Gyford on Flickr>

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